Destination, Riverside Studios, London

The war of the words
Click to follow

"Don't Rain On My Tirade" would be the perfect anthem for the long-windedly bilious protagonists in the work of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose reputation has mushroomed since his death in 1989. God, can these folk give it some lip. They make John Osborne's Jimmy Porter look like a model of don't-mind-me reticence and patriotic complacency.

Never inclined to make do with one remark where a mind-bendingly relentless monologue can be unleashed, Bernhard's characters have a pathological compulsion to share with us their pet hates, with postwar Austria, Catholicism and neo-Nazism (for Bernhard, these are virtually synonymous) topping the lengthy list. A remark by one of the characters in his 1988 play Heldenplatz to the effect that "there are more Nazis in Vienna today than there were in 1938" resulted in public outrage, death threats, poison-pen letters and a wagonload of manure being dumped at the front entrance of the theatre. Public relations was never going to be a career option

English theatre is slowly waking up to the scale ("range" would be quite the wrong word) of Bernhard's eccentric and obsessive genius. The Gate Theatre in London has premiered several of his pieces in excellent accounts by David Fielding; Alan Bates starred in The Showman at the Almeida, and last year the Edinburgh Festival offered the chance to see his work interpreted by his compatriots, with a Viennese production of Alte Meister.

Now the Volcano Theatre Company presents the British premiere of Destination in a new translation by Jan-Willem van den Bosch. Directed by the brilliant actress Kathryn Hunter, it is the first production I have seen that has attempted to apply a Complicité-like physical theatre style to Bernhard's drama. The result is undeniably arresting, but it leaves you wondering whether the comic outrageousness of his verbal onslaughts and the weirdness of his stage images of deadly co-dependency work better when they are placed in tension with bourgeois decorum and restraint.

Destination focuses on a mother-daughter relationship from hell. Snorting and snuffling with relish, Fern Smith's wing-spectacled old harridan treats the near-silent girl to a boisterously detailed rubbishing of her dead father, her crippled baby brother ("I wished for his death so fervently, he died"), her interest in theatre ("Before it has even started, we see through it"), her former boyfriends ("I disliked the way he said 'supper'") and her attempts at independence ("You are not fit for life without me"). The couple are packing for their annual trip to the seaside and anxiously expecting the arrival of a young avant-garde playwright who has rashly been invited to join them.

With a matriarch like Smith, it's all too believable that Matilda Leyser's sensitive daughter would want to swarm up the curtains and break out of the high, barred window. For my taste, though, the play's pressure-cooker atmosphere is punctured here when, showing off the performer's background as an aerialist, the young woman is seen making several symbolic attempts to do just that, always hauled back down by possessive mummy.

The radical dramatist needs more weight and presence than can be supplied by Burn Gorman, if his debates with the mother about art and political change are to carry the requisite force. But while Smith gives the kind of grotesque external performance that would sustain a sketch better than a full-length play, Bernhard's unflagging diatribes come across as they should: intolerable to the point of giddy hilarity. I mean it as a compliment to the production when I say that it really is lovely when it stops.