THEATRE / Scraping the bottom of the hate barrel: The Showman - Almeida, London N1

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The Independent Culture
'A TALENTED actor is as rare as an arsehole in the face.' Thesps shouldn't feel especially victimised by remarks like this: five minutes' acquaintance with any of Thomas Bernhard's plays or novels would make clear that the Austrian writer (who died in 1989) was no big fan of mankind in whatever department. A good word for the species in his voluminous works would also be as much of a find, you might say, as a face-boasting arse. That anti- luvvie jibe is made by the title character of The Showman, now receiving its British premiere at the Almeida in a production directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Alan Bates.

To revive a flagging career, Bruscon - a grandiose actor- dramatist and committed egomaniac - has condescended to tour the Austrian provinces, with his cowed family, in The Wheel of History - a clearly deranged play from his own pen. Here is a character who allows Bernhard's bile to have it both ways. Like many of this author's heroes, Bruscon is, in part, a self- projection, a tirelessly vilifying mouthpiece for the dramatist's various hatreds. These range from the unconscionable (women, the proletariat, non-geniuses) to the understandable (Austria's incomplete de-Nazification and unexpiated guilt, and the Catholic church as the continuation of totalitarianism by other means). But, at the same time, the serene insensitivity of this semi-surrogate to anything but his own myriad, and mostly imaginary, sufferings is vigorously pilloried.

Not that this makes The Showman in any way balanced. Indeed, it's the loony, lopsided relentlessness of his plays that creates the enjoyable feeling of slightly hysterical incredulity when they are working well. In Elisabeth II, premiered at the Gate last year, a wheelchair- bound oldster belly-ached interminably about everything under the sun, with Austria and the Viennese as his special subject. This was an awesomely bilious near-monologue, until about a quarter of an hour before the end, when dozens of partying extras bounded on, as Le tout Vienne, before plumeting to a group death from a collapsed balcony. Balance, as I say, was not Bernhard's middle name.

It would be the reverse of a compliment to say that Alan Bates gave an unselfish performance, here, as Bruscon. It would make about as much sense to congratulate a town- crier on his quiet discretion, though you could argue that the rest of Kent's cast (playing the wife, son, daughter, publican, etc) are colourless above and beyond the call of duty in their near-mute roles. Eyes closed and head flung back in a showy display of superhuman forbearance at the squalor of the pub theatre, the loud snufflings from the adjacent sty and the coughing fits of his consumptive wife, Bates's egregious Bruscon would have you believe that Job was let off lightly by comparisions. There's a wonderful dotty self-centredness and gusto in the remarks he flings out to his family, ordering his routinely reviled son ('that anti-talent') to play Hitler 'somewhat more cheerfully' this evening (since he believes this is Hitler country), and in his outrageous demands. 'Who am I]' he asks, leaning forward encouragingly to his daughter as though waiting to hear an instrumentalist produce something as indisputable as middle C. 'The greatest actor of all time,' she reluctantly responds.

Thunder crashes as curtain- up time approaches and Bruscon, like some cut-price Lear, fulminates against the concentrated mendacity of theatre and the meaninglessness of existence. Before matters get too significant, though, the whole play trips up on an artfully placed banana skin. I'd pay a lot to see the inset-drama, too. Containing Kierkegaard, Lady Churchill, Marie Curie et al, Bruscon's 'comedy' requires, he insists, five minutes' complete darkness at the close: 'Behold mankind annihilated,' he announces with a cheery flourish, and though this is a moment of satire, you feel that his creator would also consider this an upbeat ending.

Continues until 26 June, Almeida Theatre, London N1 (Box office: 071-359 4404)

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