In a wealthy home in Vienna two sisters are preparing lunch for the long-waited return of their brother Ludwig from a mental institution. Both occasional actresses, they bicker in a dull monotone, flagging some dark resentment in this privileged family. Formidable portraits of their parents and relatives surround the room. Ludwig’s arrival is a relief for all of us, but he spends the rest of the play ranting obscurely against his father and changing all the pictures. The lunch is a disaster, heirloom crockery is broken, but the atmosphere of languid disengagement continues to the end.

Lunch With Ludwig is by the late and celebrated Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard, who reportedly is the voice of post-war Austria. It was written 20 years ago and you are left craving the arrival of other lunch guests such as, say, a group of punks with some real personal and social problems. Nothing climaxes, nothing changes, nothing really explains the self-absorbed pity, except perhaps the brutal image of their father, a pragmatic Austrian industrialist. It’s a bit like Chekhov, but without his poetry and insight of character.

Bernhard perhaps sits comfortably in contemporary European theatre, with its melancholic interest in sanity and insanity, and its obsession with a soul-less bourgeoisie. His plays have never before been performed in Australia, but this production at the New Theatre does him no favours. Gertraud Ingeborg directs a flat naturalistic production which just spotlights her actors’ inability to bring any interactive truth or insight to these posturing characters. Only Ruth Hessey, as the older sister fussing to make lunch a success, warms us to any interest.

Elaine Hudson as the other sister plays only droll enigma. David Ritchie at least brings volatility to mad Ludwig but is bloodless in his tortured philosophising (it’s always near impossible making mad people interesting on stage -“ unless you’ve got King Lear).

Ingeborg fails to tap the farcical humour hidden in this play, or to run with its absurdism. She should have thrown out the dull conventional set and lighting and stretched her actors to find more vital ways to communicate the dilemmas of these siblings, and simultaneously Bernhard’s critique of them. The New is to be applauded for bringing us contemporary European theatre, but Ingeborg should have begun by going off to see what director Joseph Uchitel did last month with another European play, Death Variations.

Lunch With Ludwig is at the New Theatre until 13 August.

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