King Lear is often called Shakespeare’s “greatest” tragedy. It has a raw, timeless quality, speaking to us of pride and powerlessness, self-knowledge and madness. It has spawned other literature, paintings, films and even new, happier endings. Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard sets his Lear-inspired 1976 play in a hotel lobby in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend on New Year’s eve, a snowstorm raging outside.
Minetti – like Lear, both protagonist and play – is an ageing actor, once famous but out of work for 30 years, having been fired as artistic director of a prominent theatre. He has come to Ostend to meet a director who, he says, has proposed that Minetti reprise the role of Lear. But the director is late. “Hasn’t anyone been asking for me?” Minetti demands of the hotel concierge. As the night draws on, he regales first a middle-aged woman then a teenage girl with tales of his erstwhile fame and fall from grace, as the concierge and a bellboy look on wearily. No director shows and we begin to wonder – as in Waiting for Godot – whether there ever was a meeting.
Like Lear, Minetti can be self-important and ridiculous. He makes grand statements about the status of the artist (“we live differently, we die differently”; “we actors are constantly searching”). Yet, also like Lear, at other times he adopts a simpler, more honest register: “Why should a lovely young girl listen to the ramblings of a mad old man?” he asks in a moment of self-awareness.
The hour-long play is essentially Minetti’s monologue, punctuated by young revellers, who spill out of the hotel lift and exit through a revolving door, leaving it spinning in their wake. The two women, Minetti’s supposed listeners, do not respond and perhaps aren’t even listening. While even in the storm Lear has his “poor Fool”, in this smart hotel lobby, Minetti is devastatingly alone.
And yet, until the play’s poignant end – hauntingly conjured here by Max and Ben Ringham’s sound design and Nina Dunn’s video projections – it is easy to feel disconnected from Minetti’s suffering. He is a bitter, lonely exile, inflicting stories on his listeners like a weapon of boredom, circling round then back again in an endless repetition. Peter Eyre is excellent in the central role, with pitch-perfect comic timing, but too often Minetti’s ramblings are more tiresome than illuminating.