Edinburgh Festival 97 / Eve of Retirement Gate Theatre, London

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Indy Lifestyle Online
To be left off the shit list of Thomas Bernhard - scourge of Austria and of mankind in general - was a rare distinction. One or two madly driven geniuses were granted exeats (Wittgenstein, Glenn Gould) along with the odd brilliant thespian-interpreter of his plays such as Bernhard Minetti. Had he lived to see their work, I feel sure that Thomas Bernhard would also have made an honourable exception of the English director David Fielding and the actor Julian Curry.

They did this playwright proud in their award-winning production of Elisabeth II in 1992 - one of the most biliously hilarious evenings I have experienced in the theatre - and now they rejoin forces for the British premiere of the 1979 play Eve of Retirement. That potent mix in Bernhard of the grinding and the elating is once again projected to perfection. This is pitch-black comedy from a man whose relentless vision is all the funnier, for some of us, because it's so utterly lacking in a sense of humour.

Bernhard's contempt for Austria as a nest of unregenerate Nazis and anti- Semites is pushed to a calculatedly outrageous extreme here. The piece focuses on a triangle from hell: Holler, a Chief Justice and former commandant of a concentration camp (played by Mr Curry), and his two sisters - Vera (Jane Wood), who dances attention on him to the point of incest, and the left-wing Clara (Mary Chater) who sullenly resists them as much as a paraplegic in a wheelchair can. An American bombing raid in the last days of the war landed her in this plight. With typical contrariness, Holler feels both that this did the family a favour in putting a stop to her political activism, and that her condition symbolises his nation's victimhood at the hands of lesser breeds.

Every year, Holler dons Nazi uniform and forces his siblings to join him in a champagne supper to celebrate the birthday of his mentor, Himmler. Fielding's production makes this ritual potty, frightening and pathetic. Looking like a tall, aggrieved heron, Curry cuts an absurd figure in his military regalia.

His martyred patience with the crass insensitivities of this world raises scandalised yelps of laughter from the audience. Triumphantly reporting that he has blocked a council bid to build a poison-gas plant opposite their house, he sees no irony in his stand as an affronted friend of the German countryside. Commending his sister on the choice of champagne, he declares it the very brand that made work in the camps bearable.

You can sense, though, that there's a time-bomb - not of remorse but of some awful, insanity-inducing sense of self-recognition - ticking away within Holler.

You can see, too, from Jane Wood's superb performance as Vera, that she knows this to be the case and that the desperate humouring of her brother, as though he were still a little boy, and the frantic feeding of his prejudices are an attempt to postpone disaster. She assures him that 98 per cent of Austrians think as they do: one day they will be able to celebrate Himmler's birthday openly.

Bernhard understands men like Holler because they are the reverse image of his own fanaticism. It's this that gives Eve of Retirement its serrated edge and makes the evening a splendidly unsavoury treat.

To 6 Sept (0171-229 5387)

Paul Taylor