Everything on Krystian Lupa’s Heroes’ Square died out long ago: dreams, utopias, any sort of belief in the possibility of change or overarching meaning

It’s rather empty here. All we see on the vast stage are two wardrobes, covered in plastic sheets, an armchair beside a table, a few shoeboxes with the word “Oxford” printed on them and Professor Józef Schuster’s brogues set neatly on the floor. A few clothes scattered around an ironing board. An oversized window looking out onto Vienna’s Heldenplatz stage left. Washed out colours. Ambient music far off in the distance. And the sense that we are in the presence of something which is no longer there.

The whole first act consists of an extended monologue presented by Ms Zittel (Eglė Gabrėnaitė) – the Professor’s emancipated housekeeper. When her employer was alive, he had a weakness for elegant shoes. Even the day before he was due to move to Oxford, he ordered a new pair. When alive, he also had a weakness for clean, perfectly pressed white shirts. Józef Schuster – a most renowned OCD sufferer. When he committed suicide, nothing in fact changed: Zittel’s hands still shake when she tries to fold his shirts into a perfect cube. Herta the maid (Rasa Samuolytė / Toma Vaškevičiūtė) keeps busy constantly polishing an ever growing pile of men’s shoes. And goes on looking out the window, the one the Professor jumped from. When she approaches the sill, she freezes. This tends to drag on. Time dilates and starts to flow in a different fashion.

When we leave home, we lose our sense of sight and hearing

On the 15th of March 1938, speaking at Heldenplatz, Adolf Hitler announced the annexation of Austria, to tumultuous applause. This was the same year the Professor’s youngest brother threw himself out of a window. Because of their Jewish heritage, the Schusters had moved to Great Britain: Józef to Oxford and his brother Robert to Cambridge. Years later, they returned, even though there was nothing to come home to. Nor was there anywhere to run to again. Memories of 1938 return every day: hatred towards Jews hasn’t gone away. One can still be spat at in the streets. For a decade, Professor Schuster’s wife has been hearing shouts coming from Heroes’ Square. And so, in order to escape them, the Schusters decide to emigrate to Oxford for a second time. The day before they are due to depart, the Professor commits suicide. His story returns in several scenes, in various versions and contexts. All they ever talk about on Heroes’ Square is the past. The past is gone. In place of a future, all language offers up is pauses and ellipses.

In the final scene of the first act, an image of the Professor, wearing a white shirt, is projected onto the backdrop. The edges of the stage are illuminated with bright lights. This is all that remains: that which is remembered. That which is contained in memory or written down in collective or solitary consciousness.

Herta studies herself in the mirrored doors of the wardrobe. The end of the first act.

the Professor wanted me to wear only black

For over four hours, throughout the whole play, a minimalistic ambient soundtrack can barely be heard. Modified by sounds of the city, the drawn out chiming of a clock, crows screeching. Regularly amplified and turned down, in time it is no longer noticeable and begins to hypnotise with its singular sound. Bogumił Misala’s music is used sparingly in Lupa’s show. It functions more as sub-drop – its volume intentionally that tiny bit too low. Łukasz Twarkowski’s video is utilised in a similar way: Vilnius’ Gediminas Hill towers over the scenery, emerging in ultra-slow tempo. The image is modified slightly, something which only becomes apparent over time. It fades gradually, and in place of the castle hinted at in the image we see a flat landscape. That which is not there. Not that which is. In Heroes’ Square sound and image work in synergy: theoretically both video and music could be doing more to capture audiences’ attentions. The same could be said of the decidedly black costumes, functioning in an evidently organic way within the fabric of the play (Piotr Skiba). Theoretically. In practice, it is thanks to the application of musical and aesthetic decisions that the show takes on a much more profound effect.

all is wrecked

While the whole of the first act is made up of Ms Zittel’s monologue, the second is dominated by the charismatic Professor Robert Schuster (a wonderful Vytautas Rumšas) conversing with the daughters of his deceased brother. Volksgarten – right after the funeral. Olga (Eglė Mikulionytė) and Anna (Viktorija Kuodytė) not only look and move alike, they share similar life stories. Both work at the university, both have restrained temperaments and lead solitary lives. Their dialogues, covering their father’s life in Vienna and Oxford, touching on antisemitism or the plans to build a road which would cut through the family garden in Neuhaus, merely serve as pretexts for Robert’s extended responses – which are essentially Bernhard’s own sentiments. Why does Robert not wish to protest against the building of the road? Why doesn’t he want to protest anything? Because then he would have to protest everything. Because his life has seen enough protest already, not that the protests achieved much: “I do not protest against anything any more, which doesn’t mean I am for anything – I am against almost everything.” Professor Robert is a philosopher. He is also suffering from heart problems and is often short of breath. All of this is supposedly psychologically induced. And yet when he starts a critical diatribe against corrupt politics and industry, culture, the Church and the cynicism of interpersonal relations, he cannot stop talking. From time to time, he allows himself to feel irritated: “The body is now destroyed, but the head seems born anew everyday.” Every sentence unleashes another and their unsavourily universal character goes beyond the original, Austrian context of Bernhard’s text, becoming relevant to any and all countries. It is in the moments when Rumšasa went on about his socio-political ideas that the Viennese public reacted most avidly: a narration on the subject of bitter, cynical reality is more entertaining than bitterness and cynicism in themselves.

At the end of the second act, the three characters slowly exit the stage and leave the theatre space. Lights in the auditorium go up. And this is no avant-garde gesture, no one tries to break down any sorts of doors, but in the bitter context of Schuster’s conclusion “That which can be written is nothing compared to reality” can be seen as an expression of the powerlessness of literature and art in the face of reality’s terrible force. “Reality is so evil – it cannot be described.”

After the actors depart, an image of Vilnius’ hollowed out Palace of Concerts and Sports is projected onto the back of the stage. Built on the ruins of the old Jewish cemetery, the Palace was to be a lively centre for cultural and sports events. Today, it stands empty, surrounded by apartment blocks, while gravestones from the Jewish cemetery have been used to construct the stairs leading up to one of the administrative buildings.

we have been condemned to death for ages

Heroes’ Square says a lot about the economy of hate, as well as about being helpless and the automatic conversion of hate into ever new mechanisms of oppression. About how powerless we are in the face of real life. Robert Schuster goes on to say: “I am surprised that the whole nation hasn’t committed suicide yet.” Once could use Józef Schuster to present a complete case study of what an unhappy man is. A person who, walking along the street they are looking for, cannot find it. Oxford itself was close to founding its own Heroes’ Square. It would not have featured Hitler and the Viennese. No Heldenplatz crowds would gather to scream there. But everything would be the same. A piano sent to Oxford hasn’t got there yet, and already it is to be sent back to Neuhaus. The house bought in Oxford is on the market again, and no one has been informed about the Professor’s death, in accordance with his wishes. One can hear voices on Heldenplatz, voices which echo as far as Oxford. In Neuhaus, nothing is audible, and so one cannot go back having heard what one has heard. Everywhere things are the same. In the play’s closing scene of a wake, the guests sitting round the table talk, but their discussion becomes drowned out by the symphony of voices which rise up from Heroes’ Square. This time, they can be heard by others, not just Professor Schuster’s widow.


Anka Herbut studied dramaturgy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and at the Theatrical Institute in Warsaw. She is also a playwright, reviewer and art critic. Herbut writes radical fairytales and words in the categories of “artnaming” and “copyleft.” She co-founded the interdisciplinary arts collective IP Group and writes for the likes of Didaskalia, Chimera, Notatnik Teatralny and dwutygodnik.com magazine.