When Thomas Bernard wrote his play, Minetti, for veteran actor Bernhard
Minetti in 1976, it introduced a new generation to a performer whose
career had seen him play on all of Germany's major stages in the post
Second World War years. Regarded as 'the king of theatre', and with an
ego to match such a claim, Minetti joined the Schillertheatre in Berlin
in 1957. By the time he first worked with Bernhard in 1974 aged
sixty-nine, however, as a cantankerous circus ringmaster in The Force
of Habit, Minetti's career was in need of a kickstart. Even though it
wasn't directly about him, Minetti the play was it.
For an equally provocative Bernhard, this new solo piece about an actor
in decline stuck in the lobby of a New York hotel on New Year's Eve
became a platform for his own ideas on life and art. Who better to
become his voice than an old-time actor who echoed his own frustrations
with the world, which the literary and theatrical establishment became
a microcosm of.
Almost thirty years on from the play's debut, Minetti finally receives
a mainstage UK showing in
Tom Cairns' Edinburgh International Festival production, in which Peter
Eyre takes the play's title role.
“Actors are always looking for a great role, whatever age they are,”
says Cairns of his thinking behind doing Minetti, “and actors of this
particular age group are always looking for a plum role like this.
Peter and I talked about doing the play for about three years, and he
was very keen. I wanted to work on serious material, and this was out
there and seemed to fit the bill.”
The choice of play is interesting for Cairns, who has worked
extensively as both a director and designer over the last thirty years
at major institutions, including the National Theatre in London and
Glyndebourne. While Bernhard is regarded as a major figure by scholars
of European literature and theatre, his work is rarely seen in the UK.
Bernhard's bloody-minded ban on any of his work being performed or
published in or around Austria, which he imposed prior to his death in
1989, has only added to his legend.
“He's a towering figure,” says Cairns, “and people who've heard of him
in this country recognise that, but he was a complex figure. He was
quite hostile to his country, and in his own way was quite
anti-establishment. His plays are quite angry about prejudice and other
things. I knew his plays, but I knew this one had never had an English
translation, and isn't done very often, possibly because it can be
quite challenging. It's complex and jagged, and it relates to King
Lear, which this old actor had done thirty years before, and now
there's a storm raging outside this hotel, and all these young
party-goers are passing through the lobby while he explores his views
In keeping with Minetti's study of an actor's lot, Cairns' production
will also collaborate with two great dramatic training houses, the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and The Juilliard School, New
“Minetti looks at the nature of theatre,” says Cairns, “how far one can
go with theatre, and how challenged or comfortable people should be
when they go to the theatre, but Bernhard does that without being
polemical, and because the play's about an actor, he can address all
While the play may have been written for Minetti, other actors have
played the role since. This may make things easier for audiences to
distinguish between fiction and the real-life person who inspired it.
Like Minetti the actor, American-born, English-schooled and
Paris-trained Eyre has led a distinguished career both on stage and
screen. Unlike the character he plays, however, seventy-something Eyre
is very much still in his prime, according to Cairns.
“He's still a very well-respected actor,” he says, “and he's done
everything, and his career's doing rather well just now, so I think
he's enjoying himself, having something to get his teeth into like
this. I think Peter is finding the debate in the play quite
interesting. It's not necessarily a debate he would agree with, but
it's one he can be frustrated by. Peter has a big brain.”
As for Minetti the man, his work with Bernhard led to a second wind.
While he stayed with the Schillertheatre until the company's demise in
1995, he went on to join the Berliner Ensemble after accepting an
invitation from playwright and the Ensemble's then artistic director,
Heiner Muller, who directed Minetti in Brecht's Arturo Ui. Before his
death in 1998, Minetti would go on to work with post-modern maestro,
Robert Wilson, and others. It is Bernhard's homage, however, that has
kept Marinetti's name alive in a way that Cairns believes still has a
power for audiences today.
“I would just say Minetti is as important as it ever was,” he says.
“It's essentially a discussion about human nature and how we behave
towards each other. It isn't a play that has any particular political
relevance to today, but was written about a particular world, and we
use the play to see how that world is influenced by it. Bernhard's
plays do have an insistently strong point of view, and with this one
there are no half measures.”
Minetti, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 16-18, 8-10pm; Aug 17,
The Herald, August 14th 2014