Heldenplatz, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The Austrian Catholic writer Thomas Bernhard was known for denouncing his church ("a disgrace"), his language ("lumpy"), and his homeland ("a common hell in which the intellect is incessantly defamed"). His last play created an almighty row.

Heldenplatz is an example of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (you can see what he meant), or coming to terms with the past, a genre to which Austrians have much less exposure than Germans. Many Austrians consider themselves victims of Nazi occupation, though the 1938 "invasion" was met by cheering crowds throwing flowers, especially in the Viennese square of the title. Before the play begins, a Jewish professor who escaped has found Austria, 50 years on, "even more hateful and hostile to Jews" and jumped out of a window on the Heldenplatz. Small wonder there were attacks in the press, demonstrations, an assault on Bernhard and a charge of libelling the nation from its then president, Kurt Waldheim (who might have been miffed at being called "a cunning lying philistine").

It is disappointing, then, to find the play so stately and static. The professor's housekeeper and maid dispose of his possessions, then serve luncheon after the funeral. He is recalled by his family, servants and admirers: "To me the Professor was actually a beautiful person"; "Your mother is empty- headed, father always said"; "He hated flowers"; "To be left alone was his greatest happiness"; "Suddenly one day you discover your own children are non-humans, he said we think we're raising human beings and then they're just carnivorous cretins". The dead man's brother repeats and endorses his view of his country as "a mini-state of halfwits"; "a mindless and cultureless sewer that spreads its stench all across Europe". "Being a Jew in Austria always means being sentenced to death."

The forceful housekeeper (Barbara Marten) and the feeble but edgy brother (Clive Mendus) deliver many long, repetitious monologues effectively, but the characters never engage with the content or each other. Annie Casteldine and Annabel Arden's production has a deadly elegance, with a set (by Iona McLeish) of a shiny metal floor and columns against a black background. Black-clad ghosts of murdered Jews sit and watch, as if waiting for justice. But the play, all spleen and no heart, never comes to life.

To 6 March (020 7503 1646)

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