Herzstück, the shortest play by GDR bad boy Heiner Müller, only has 14 lines. This is a much advertised fact of the newly-opened production of the piece at Maxim Gorki Theater. However, Sebastian Nübling’s loose adaptation has much more text than that – in fact, the hour-long show is rarely silent. Despite its sparse script, Herzstück is said to be an examination of labour, and Gorki’s production pays tribute to Müller’s inspiration (if not his playbook) by launching a frenetic parody of work as the clowns — whose members include several actors from the theater’s refugee Exile Ensemble — try (and largely fail) to begin the play. Their attempts to start the promised piece are hampered by personal anxieties, technical difficulties, poor collaboration, and the rebellious activities of an ‘artist’ in their midst (his role announced by a plaque) who creates fascinating stage pictures, flooding the stage with rubber balls, unleashing Roombas, and (most symbolically) refusing to participate in his co-workers’ efforts, instead silently wrapping his head in gauze. The show’s frenzied, absurdist style frequently yields laughs from the audience, as the clowns, who manage to establish surprisingly distinct personalities in a vacuum of actual plot, continuously change their activities onstage and the overall direction of the show. Highlights include Dominic Hartmann’s role as a frustrated master of ceremonies, Karim Daoud’s laconic Müller-esque asides throughout, and Vidina Popov’s unhinged monologue that comes at the climax of the piece. Müller devotees will be pleased to know that they do, eventually, manage to get to the 14 lines in question – but their delivery comes as an afterthought, a letdown respective to the performers’ efforts to put them on. Those who appreciate the experimental nature of the preceding pageant of errors will view their delayed delivery as an impactful moment, a successful critique of the ever-increasing valorisation of work, made incarnate by the meandering piece itself. As for Müller purists, let’s hope they won’t accidentally end up in Gorki’s container auditorium!
Herzstück, Aug 18-21, Sep 1, 20:00 (with English surtitles)