Sunday 17 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Minetti, or Successfully Skating on Potentially Thin Ice

Thomas Bernhard's Minetti is a show focused on a subject which has caused many other shows to come a cropper. A key aim is to discuss the meaning and or point of art. Many previous attempts to do this which I've sat through discarded character and narrative and thereby became either infuriating or dull. In the first half the plight of the central character sometimes felt a bit emotionally remote, but the treatment of the ideas is compelling as is the central performance, and by the end I'd revised my opinion. I'm not sure shows on this subject will ever be my favourite form of theatre, but I forgave this one for choosing it, and it left me oddly thoughtful.

Bernhard's play, almost entirely a monologue, portrays the aging actor Minetti who hasn't appeared on stage for thirty years since he “rejected the classics” (I think that's the term used). To begin with we are led to believe that he's been summoned to a meeting on New Year's Eve in a hotel in Ostend with an old childhood friend now director of a nearby theatre who wants him to reprise his celebrated King Lear for the theatre's bicentenary. The date should perhaps give more of clue than I at first appreciated. As Minetti rambles on and on about this and related matters one becomes increasingly doubtful as to whether there ever was a meeting, ultimately, whether Minetti really is the famous actor he insists that he is. Additional layers operate on top of this. Thus, Minetti becomes Lear-like in his isolation – raging on, compellingly to those of us beyond the footlights, but facing boredom and rejection from others in the on-stage hotel. Beyond this there is, of course, the bigger question, deftly posed here as to whether there's any point to this kind of performance at all.

Minetti himself is superbly portrayed by Peter Eyre whose delivery of the text is mesmeric – the show is worth seeing for Eyre alone. There is a tiny contradiction here – which is to say the play does pose some doubts, or seemed to me to pose doubts, as to the supposed greatness of Minetti, but Eyre's acting never gives one any reason to believe in them. Yet this too, of course, may be intentional – the failure of the public to recognise artistic greatness. There's some fine supporting work from Sian Thomas as A Woman, and from the Juilliard and RADA students who make up the bulk of the ensemble – particularly Steven Robertson's silent porter. Tom Cairns, last at the Festival with Opera North's solid Makropulos Case a few years back, directs what I assumed to be a fairly faithful staging. The lift and revolving door are nice touches – and the final moments have a haunting beauty.

I came away more caught up in the show than I'd expected during the first half. As it went on, while I appreciated the cleverness of the various layers I've mentioned, ultimately it engaged me in Minetti's plight. Is he a great actor or a mad old man? The play finally renders this very ambiguous. What it wisely ensured, at least for this member of the audience, is that, whatever the truth, he is a man suffering and deserving of sympathetic consideration. Well worth catching.

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