Thomas Bernhard. HEROES' SQUARE

  • Director

    Krystian LUPA

  • Duration

    4 h (three acts)

  • Stage

    Main Stage

  • Premiere date

    March 27, 2015

  • N-14

About

◊ 2015 National Theatre Award. Best Director – Krystian Lupa 
◊ 2015 National Theatre Award. Best Actress in Leading Role – Eglė Gabrėnaitė
◊ 2015 National Theatre Award. Best Actor in Leading Role – Valentinas Masalskis  
◊ 2015 National Theatre Award. Best Video Designer – Łukasz Twarkowski 

Translation from German by Rūta Jonynaitė

On March 15, 1938, on Heroes’ Square, the main square in Vienna, Adolph Hitler declared about the  Anschluss Österreichs, or the annexation of Austria by Germany. 50 years later in a flat close to Heroes’ Square the Schuster family holds a reunion. Professor Schuster, a thinker and a philosopher who fled Nazis and left Austria for Oxford, has been asked by Vienna Mayor to return to his university in the 60s. However, back in Vienna he sees no other way out except suicide. It is because the situation in contemporary Austria is “much worse than 50 years ago”. Joseph Schuster’s fate in the political drama openly exposes the political, moral and spiritual picture of the situation in Austria. Bernhard’s language, full of poetry and music, is marked by a characteristic principle of form, i.e., a carefully measured overstatement. The art of exaggeration is Bernhard’s instrument in revealing the detailed view of the current-day situation, which makes the audiences laugh and weep at the same time.

Bernhard chooses one of his favourite entry points to open the play: death of a protagonist and an investigation of the details that have led to it. The character dies in the very beginning of the play. As usual in his plays, the death is a suicide. It opens up a mysterious empty space with enigmatic signs, while the family of the deceased are forced to question them. In “Heroes’ Square” this model is exploited to a much exaggerated extent.

A scholar of Jewish origin returns to his native country having fled the Nazi occupation and after years spent in England. Homeland turns out to be a “deadly space”. We fall into the realm of spiritual curse and destroyed compassion. The society that lives in this realm is a spiritual mutant. Professor Schuster’s suicide becomes an act of disclosure of this truth. It brings about ideas that previously have not been possible to conceive, it brings about words and sentences that previously have not been voiced. Scars of old wounds are being open time and again, and places irrevocably lost to humanity are revealed. Society that has cradled a terrible crime, has mutated; it’s impossile to return here, to root oneself, to find one’s meaning of life and one’s homeland. There is no one to clean the decay, which has induced mysterious shifts in the human souls and social processes. Schuster’s death is a revelation of the terrible monster face. The human texture is not developing here; this place is characterised by numbness, which pretends to be alive. Wellfare, a mask of human civilization, makes it possible to hide behind it and to create a deception of mature compassion. However, the so-called humanity is a deadly neologism...

Creators

  • Director, set and light designer — Krystian LUPA
  • Costume designer — Piotr SKIBA
  • Creative Associate — Łukasz TWARKOWSKI
  • Composer — Bogumił MISALA

Cast

Reviews

Review extracts: Heroes’ Square

Review extracts: Heroes’ Square

 

On March 28th <...>, a true celebration took place in Lithuania (and a very rare one, too) – a good performance.

Obviously, the actor casting process was very precise, and instructions with regards to their roles were very clear. Yet rather than becoming only the components of a precisely working machine, actors have enjoyed a freedom of improvisation. Live actors could communicate among themselves and with live audience.

Lupa’s work with actors gave an incredible result. <...> In addition, interesting are the coincidences of some actors’ personal lives and their roles. These coincidences would not happen if it were not for a very careful selection of cast. Without selection, we wouldn’t be able to see again how intelligent and sensitive actors of our middle and senior generation can be. While watching the performance, it has become clear that in Lithuania, there are more good actors than initially anticipated.

Theatre Celebration//  Kristina Steiblytė, „7 meno dienos“, 2015-04-03

 

The stage is framed with a ray of light; it looks like a detailed painting, which allows the viewers to eye every spot on the wall, each shadow in the window, all clothes and wardrobes, a row of shoes, and apart from that, observe the face of the actor-character and his hypnotizing fixation in his mind.

Robert Schuster, as played by Valentinas Masalskis, cascades his ideas, attitudes, instructions, questions and complaints as a virtuoso player. Director leads us subtly through the winding monologue of Frau Zittel (actress Eglė Gabrėnaitė): an invisible web connects all her words, actions, movements, glances and moods. During Zittel’s monologue, viewers are all eyes and ears, they try not to miss a single piece of information or hint.

In every country or city, there is a Heroes’ Square, which spreads infectious poison and affects the human state, making a person alien in his own land, despotic towards oneself and others, marked by conformism and hypocriticy. It kills human dignity and leads towards self-destruction. Lupa explores this “deadly space”, which is catching up with Bernhard’s characters. Meanwhile, the viewers embark on a bumpy journey through the process of self-analysis and self-awareness, seeking the root cause of the personal and collective feelings in today’s world.

Experiences of Heroes’ Square // Rasa Vasinauskaitė, „7 meno dienos“, 2015-04-10

 

The second and third acts are completely ruled by the mastery of Valentinas Masalskis. Heroes’ Square and Lupa’s directing has brought this actor back on stage from his reclusion into teaching and directing. It is enough for him to take one step in the back of the stage, and professor Robert is alive, even if we can see his back only.   

The second act has been a work of a virtuoso thanks to Masalskis’ artistic mastership. The range of professor’s moods encompasses all and everything from quiet sorrow to tragedy, from light irony to bitter sarcasm towards the time period, his country, relatives, politicians and contemporaries.

When we speak about mastership, the small characters of Heroes’ Square are well worth a praise. Neringa Bulotaitė’s microscopic Frau Lybig is among of the most outstanding ones.

 

Spiritist Séance in Heroes’ Square Within the Walls of Vilnius // Rūta Oginskaitė, lrytas.lt, 2015-03-31

 

Thanks to Lupa’s direction, Masalskis found new quality in his acting.

We haven’t seen Masalskis quite like that. We get convinced that negativity and despair can be so well grounded and reasonable, while extreme misanthropy and its inevitable contradictions can have such a “human” face!

As the monologue grows more and more intense, the world of Robert-Masalskis is drawing us in. The more intense the negation and disclosure, the more life clings onto the professor and the professor onto his life. Audience watches the pure joy of acting, which paradoxically fills them (at least, some of them) with joy of life: perhaps this owes to the fact that the picture in negative is as beautiful as in positive.

Blow Up the World According to Bernhard // Alma Braškytė, Menų faktūra, 2015 03 31

 

This year a premiere of Thomas Bernhard’s Heroes’ Square, directed by Krystian Lupa, has turned into Krakow festival’s highlight. Interest in the performance was so huge that an extra performance was added to the program. This play is the most aggressive piece written by the Austrian playwright; it’s sarcastic and it mercilessly exposes the realities of post-war Austria, which was in a hurry to distance itself from Hitler’s policies. The play in its turn criticizes philistinism, power, and lazy minds.

Lupa has staged Heroes’ Square at Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. I don’t know how the performance was received in Vilnius, yet in Krakow the atmosphere sometimes reminded of what was happening during the production Forefathers' Eve in 1968. Tension in audience was to be clearly felt, and viewers were looking for similarities with today’s political situation in Poland.

Bernhard’s allusions to those in power worked best. Bitter remarks made by professor Robert Schuster, about the fall of the political class, about chancellor as a caricature without any will, or a prime minister who is too dumb ”to finish a sentence” were followed by a wave of applauds and a loud laughter. Politicians en masse were represented as hypocrites and populists, and people liked it. <...> Audience took large parts of Heroes’ Square as remarks referring directly to the current situation in Poland. A wonderful finale, marked by intensifying shouts of a crowd marching below Schuster’s window, served as a threat and a warning.

Krystian Lupa Stages Bernhard: Political Heroes’ Square. Atmosphere in the Audience the Same as in 1968. Michał Olszewski, www.wyborcza.pl, 2015 12 15

 

 

The performance is taking place between painful past and an approaching downfall. Everything is moving slowly, a mourning silence and “funeral” speeches set the tempo. However, Heroes’ Square is not a typical tale of “history repeating”. Lupa highlights Schuster’s character, which is phenomenally played by Valentinas Masalskis. He is the character who accumulates in one lens all pain of nazi victims and despair of the world moving in the wrong direction.

Schuster is a bitter nihilist who has lost faith in people and culture, and expects a portion of everyday “bullshit” from ambitious yellow press. The old man’s monologues reveal desire for death and a curse of consciousness. It is because Schuster has noticed something his brother failed to notice. His resolute criticism of civilization arises from a tragedy of an intellectual who understands that some processes repeat. They repeat and are inevitable.

If there are things Lupa cannot convey with Bernhard’s text, he does it with video and sound. Walls of the building turn into screens for Łukasz Twarkowski’s architectonic visualisations. They are stylistically close to scary gothic short stories, which feature buildings dying together with people. Ghostly architecture sometimes turns into a literally burned land. Bogumił Misala’s lyrical and muffled music enhances the pressure in the atmosphere.

It is certainly not easy to watch Lupa’s performance. Master and his Lithuanian actors have created an antithesis of contemporary theatre. The performance is a static fragment of a certain world rather than a dynamic set of interchanging compositions. It is a monolyth of more than four hours, which in fact can pressure audiences. Furthermore, monologues presented by the characters are the quintessence of stage “un-action”.

Milimalistic visual side of Lupa’s performance hides clear contents. It warns about disaster, which will touch everyone. Director puts a mirror in front of the world; the mirror amplifies the characteristics it reflects. And the crash of the world, as shown in the last scene, is a matter of minutes, not hours.

„Heroes’ Square: Broken Mirror“

Łukasz Badula, www.kulturaonline.pl

 

Acting is exquisite, actors hardly need words to communicate the scenes, they do it with a deep feeling and sensitivity to detail, and their monologues are superb. Best example of the second type of acting is the first scene, which lasts more than one hour and is entirely dedicated to a monumental confession of Frau Zittel who is ironing the dead professor’s shirt.

Meanwhile, the actress playing Herta is creating her role by endlessly looking out of the window and arranging shoes of 45 size on the floor. Almost every actor is perfectly in charge of silence as well as of subtle elements, while weaving micro-gestures into an intricate play.

Set design is marked with utter severity and minimalism; and its sheer size is compelling. In spite of the deliberately chosen unsophisticated visuals, artists convey the feeling of emptiness, which usually follows death. This atmosphere marks the end of some period, a line separating from a certain kind of world, which is shrinking.

Set design constructions are suprisingly multifunctional, in a slight modification, they can turn from a room into an open space. The main element is created by monumental windows, which make even a massive antique wardrobe look insignificant.

All elements of the performance are built to amount to the momentum of uncertainty and the feel of an inevitable end. This destroys the meticulously built fortress, which protects the characters from the outer world, represented by the events on the Square.

The soundscape of the performance enhances this atmosphere with intensifying sounds of the city oozing through to the room: bells, birds and crowd shouting; the sounds that get magnified by the end of the performance.

On the Other Side of the Crowd (Heroes’ Square)

Marcelina Nowakowska, www.teatralia.com.pl

 

Heroes’ Square is an exceptionally self-controlled and rigorous chamber-performance.  In order to get into its rhythm, one must be attentive to every word pronounced and to each gesture (even the slightest one) produced on stage. The sound of the performance (created by Bogumił Misala) is also subtly enthralling and utterly reflective of reality: sound of bells, street noises, and bird screams. This heavily loaded experience is not easily accessible to everyone. But if one succeeds, time comes to a standstill, while the world outside the window turns into four hours of theatrical play.

The stage of Lithuanian National Drama Theatre has turned into the right space for Lupa to come back to the style mostly praised by his Polish audiences. Words seep in slowly from the stage through a fine combination of artistic mastery and precisely arranged text. Today we rarely have an opportunity to see such pictures: moderate, simple and yet compelling. It is enough for us to turn on the right channel, switch off  the world and allow ourselves to be taken on a journey.

Heroes’ Square: no chance for better tomorrow

Katarzyna Pawlicka, www.film.onet.pl

Interview

Audronis Liuga Interviews Krystian Lupa // 27 March, 2015

Audronis Liuga Interviews Krystian Lupa

Text published in HEROES' SQUARE brochure, March 27, 2015 

Bernhard hated his homeland and loved it, talked about death as liberation from the absurd of life and yet loved life. Where do these contradictions come from?

Bernhard himself could not answer this question. Perhaps if we want to find an answer, we should look for it in his childhood, in his state of mind as a child. A child unwanted. His mother considered placing him in a foster care institution many times. He would run away to his grandfather whom he loved dearly.  Mother wanted to get rid of him first of all because he was born out of rape. She was pressured by her own relation with Bernhard’s father and forbade mentioning him in her presence. Mother didn’t love her child. After giving birth to him, she was eager to start a new life with another man, a father to her subsequent children. These children became the focus of her life. Bernhard was furthermore alienated by that. As a child, he was condemned to a life in absurd. Coming of age, he turned distrustful and started seeing conspiracy everywhere. Yet perhaps we have most interest in Bernhard’s relationship with his homeland. The narrow-minded ethos, prevalent in Austria of the time, made a significant influence on the behavior of Austrians after the war: Austria was in the end the country that justified collaboration with Hitler and was hiding Nazi killers. The Austrian mentality in the wake of the war was a proof that the history lessons had not been learned. Bernhard could not come to terms with that and was constantly involved in a non-conformist attack against this mentality. Homeland answered him along the same lines. It alienated him, the same way as his mother had done before. Bernhard was a complicated personality. The more eager he was to love, the more he got attacked. Yet he believed confrontation would eventually lead to truth and reconciliation. His compatriots, however, found it repudiating. Had the world not recognized Bernhard as the genius of the European post-war literature, Austria would have eradicated him.

Bernhard’s last works, novel “Extinction” and play “Heroes’ Square” serve as the author’s testament in which he reveals the confrontation of the living and their dead relatives. Why?

Death is like Bernhard’s stigma, which includes his own constantly anticipated death. It has shaped the perspective of his works, most significantly – his last ones. Deaths of those around us challenge us, the living ones, especially if these deaths appear as a consequence to a series of mistakes, which change the relationships of friends or family in the aftermath. Death in Bernhard’s works is like an obsession. Death means that it’s not possible to return and correct something that has happened incidentally. “Heroes’ Square” presents a situation, provoked by a suicide that has happened shortly before the play commences. “Extinction” starts with news about a car accident, in which takes the narrator’s parents and brother are killed. These deaths make him review his life in a thorough detail. But the things he arrives at are absurd and sad because understanding sets in too late. A work of art may become a testament if the author pays for it with his own life. Through the act of creation, he sacrifices his life and ensures the lasting impact of his work. Bernhard understood this so deeply, he knew he had to sacrifice something big in the end of his life, so that he could express himself and resist the oppression he had been experiencing in his homeland.

For “Heroes’ Square”, Bernhard chooses a radical style of writing. No events happen in the play and the time is standing still. We can only see the flow of character thoughts, yet no clear motives emerge.

I think Bernhard chose a special day, the funeral day of the professor, for a purpose. Time has stopped. Life, everyday matters and wishes become irrelevant after this suicide. We can say that all movement has stopped, and we have started repeating a circular pattern. We have no clue where our life will go and what we will do in it. In the three scenes of the play, we become more and more engaged in the suicide and its impact on those who have surrounded the professor. We can hear other characters repeat the words of the deceased, which, in the retrospective, take on a different meaning. It looks like the professor who has committed suicide, has entered his family and friends. We can see the time standing still as well as some kind of personal dematerialization. An atomized personality provokes unexpected thoughts for the living. Subsequently, some of them become creatures possessing unlimited powers.

“Heroes’ Square” is a further step Bernhard takes in comparison to his previous plays. Unusual is the fact that we can’t see any motives, which serve as the basis of the thoughts the characters are having. His dialogues are not motivated like those of Chekhov; Bernhard does it his way. While writing, he is attempting to catch the moments that emerge as if out of nowhere, but, in fact, they don’t come out of nowhere: it’s just that Bernhard doesn’t point to the direction they are coming from, and this, I think, is a work of genius.

And what truth is hidden in the thoughts of the family and friends of the deceased professor?

Professor Joseph’s suicide and testament have pushed his family into extreme actions. Joseph was the first one to act terribly, and we, if we want to amend his behavior and find a solution, we get involved in something that is even worse: we destroy our own family. During the funeral we delete father. Everyone thinks about it and can’t move a single step while pressured by this thought. This strong and all-encompassing image is like a nail stuck in the brain. This nail has gone down so deeply that all thoughts disappear. Only pain remains. Lies, miscommunication and pointing fingers at each other are the consequences of this pain. And everyone is afraid to look into the future. Because future doesn’t exist. Our senses lead to this conclusion, but we don’t speak about our senses. It’s like a huge ball punching a hole in the wall, and we are in panic that the wall may crack any time, so we speak about anything else but the object of our fear.

These thoughts mask the truth about family as well as about the world. We could say that this family is a victim: a victim of our epoch’s political and social consciousness, a victim of the 20th century’s complacency, which has made human beings believe that they can create a new historical reality as well as change the fate of the world. This kind of society has lost its moral values, which may have been simply a disguise, yet without them human relations become somewhat savage, hatred and intolerance dominate. In this play by Bernhard, we see the moral and human consequences of war. Death has touched not only those who were taken to concentration camps and killed there. Death becomes evident in the natural cycle of human development. Seeds of creativity have been destroyed. When a human being flees their country against their own will, and after some time they attempt to return into the same context of meaning that had been left behind, this meaning is non-existent anymore. Yet this human being can’t stay abroad either because he/she has no connections to this place. This is the fate of the Schuster family, as described in Bernhard’s play. They fled Nazi-occupied Austria, and after a long time, they have returned to Vienna. Yet they can’t stay here, neither can they live anywhere else. Their fates have been broken and have unfolded in the reality, which attributes no significance to a fate of one human being. We often face this. For example, this is the current political situation in my country, Poland. What I mean is the intolerance, which encompasses everything. It’s a formidable process. And I don’t mean only anti-Semitism. Obviously, this theme is very strong in “Heroes’ Square”. But, in fact, Bernhard speaks of the tragedy of one human being in the society of the 20th century. And he looks at it from the perspective of a creative personality in destruction. This global problem is intertwined with the theme of anti-Semitism. While staging the performance, I didn’t mean to this theme less prominent, but I wanted to focus on the obvious protest of Bernhard against the destruction process, in which the whole world has been involved. Today we can say that the things Bernhard talks about have become a terrible diagnosis of the contemporary society.

Bernhard unleashes laughter as he sets upon revealing absurd hopeless situations…

Hopelessness is explosive. In Bernhard’s case, it’s a kind of bomb. Bernhard has a subtle sense of humour, which works as a tool of learning. Using my sense of humour, I can find the hidden motives of the world, which remain unknown to serious people. Therefore, we could say, that these serious people are killing the world. Humour suggests to us that everything is the opposite from what it looks like. It suggests we should follow an absurd thought to see where it goes. Maybe we should do a head-stand so that we can see the light, which has become invisible to us once we started walking on two feet. By saying this I speak about the changes occurring in the world at this moment: shift of mentality, change of habits and religious metamorphoses, which require to rebuke the shell of Christian morality as it imprisons people in an absurd state and thus draws catastrophes closer. I think that people belonging to the other type will become the majority and will perhaps bring about something new and positive.

Is it this other type of humans that Bernhard refers to when he speaks about the “philosopher of the moment”, who embodies spontaneous thinking, unrestrained by previous knowledge?

Yes, the idea is similar. Throughout the history of humanity, changes would start unexpectedly, in unusual peripheral locations. Now we are in a similar situation of transformation. While we can only see its apocalyptical side at the moment, I hope we need it, so that human beings can open some new possibilities for themselves.

I think this “philosopher of the moment idea is closely related to your work with an actor. You provoke the actor to drop his/her previous knowledge and delve into the common thinking process together with you.

And it’s fantastic how intense this process is! In Poland, I work with people I know very well, we know what we want from each other and the rehearsal process is like calm water. I’ve met actors here who are used to a different way of working, and suddenly we share something new. And this something explodes through what you’ve called a spontaneous thinking act. It takes some time for us to see the artistic results of this act, yet the reflective phenomena and the wealth of ideas that surround us during the rehearsals is incredible. I would like us all to give birth to a new performance based on this experience. But even without this promise, I find priceless the very process that’s taking place here.

You put effort into creating situations stretching between two extremes: the stage and the auditorium, the actor and the role, theatre and life. What do these limits mean to you? 

As a writer, Bernhard felt a personality limit in himself, which would generate a unique process: my ideas are in opposition to my personality. This leads to the question: where am I? In my actions or in my ideas? My ideas are creatures, which are independent from me. They rebel often. I’ve long been interested in relations between narration and audience. During a performance, something similar to a spiritist séance between characters and the audience occurs. The actor gets an opportunity to collide with the viewer in his mind and soul, by means of his/ her character. When we understand that between us and them, something strange is happening, which turns out to be more interesting than the story we are telling on the stage, we will see how the story cracks and a new phenomenon appears, which leads us to another realm, still unknown to us. When the actor is consciously opening up for these mystical perceptions, while creating the role in the eyes of audience, it’s one thing. Yet it’s a totally different thing if actors can use their perceptions in a creative manner, enhancing the possibilities of this act, they become performers, leaders of a very curious process. I think catharsis as we know it from the times of Antiquity, is a planet that we haven’t explored yet. In the essence, we can speak about experiences, which we carry inside us and try to express through various theatre rituals. However, we do not know how the expression mechanism works, neither do we know the moment it’s supposed to start, nor the reason for this phenomena. Tadeusz Kantor once tried to define this phenomenon like this: it’s strange and awful that over there, on the other side of footlights, an alien and fearsome creature exists, which we get goose bumps from and its name is “it’s me”.

 

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