Of course I knew the play Woyzeck, doesn’t everybody? Famously a fragment left behind by George Büchner on his untimely death at the age of 23 in 1837. Adaptors over the years have made it their own by piecing the remaining bits together and adding an ending to suit their own tastes. The opera by Alban Berg. The film by Werner Herzog. And now Jack Thorne’s dramatic adaptation for the Old Vic… I’m not convincing you, am I? I confess that of course I’d heard of Woyzeck, but that was about the extent of it.
This Woyzeck is a soldier in Berlin in the early 1980s, packed off after an inauspicious spell in Northern Ireland, taking with him his Irish girlfriend Marie and their baby, living in stinking rooms above a butcher’s shop rather in married quarters – they’re not married. His loyal colleague from Northern Ireland, Andrews, is still by his side, screwing everyone he comes into contact with so long as a) they’re female and b) they’re alive. Woyzeck is in desperate need for extra cash so acts as hairdresser/masseur (maybe more?) to Captain Thompson, and subjects himself to medical trials with the creepy Doctor Martens. Woyzeck has PTSD from his Northern Ireland stint but are the medical trials making him worse? And will his relationship with Marie survive his outbursts of fury and violence?
Tom Scutt’s design, which mainly consists of large walls descending from the flies, dominates the stage; and whilst these walls have considerable impact by their own appearance, they detract from the acting space. As a result, the Old Vic’s huge stage is only rarely called upon to contribute; the majority of the scenes take place, cramped, in between or in front of the walls. You may wish to attribute great symbolism to these walls – do they represent military barricades? Are they walls within Woyzeck’s mind? and so on. As Woyzeck begins to fall apart, so do these walls; gashes in their soft surfaces revealing bloody globules of angry brain. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted them.
It is, I think it’s fair to say, a dark play. Apart from Andrews, there’s no one particularly happy with their lot. Woyzeck’s initial optimism falls away as the play develops; Marie’s confidence in Woyzeck steadily declines; Woyzeck fails to adhere to the strict rules of the medical trial, much to the doctor’s fury. Relationships are strained; security is threatened. There’s no obvious rescue position at the end of the play that looks to the future; no Fortinbras coming in to save us all. No matter how much you might enjoy the performances, at the end of the play you feel as though you’ve had a thoroughly hard time and you’ll need to rush outside and get some fresh air.
John Boyega plays Woyzeck; you, gentle reader, of course know who he is, but I didn’t have a clue as I don’t watch Star Wars. He cuts an impressive figure and is very convincing as a tormented brain, which is largely what he has to portray after the interval. I liked his light-hearted but sexually charged banter with Marie, and his scenes with Andrews, although I found his interaction with the other characters slightly less convincing. Sarah Greene is superb as Marie, spirited in her dealings with Woyzeck, a little reserved and somewhat humiliated with other characters. However, the two of them together created an unlikely partnership for the times and in many ways, it wasn’t entirely believable. Ben Batt and Nancy Carroll steal the show; he as the irrepressible and ever perky Andrews, and she as the flirtatious and snobby Maggie, inquiring after the collection boxes she has entrusted to the embarrassed Marie whilst Andrews finishes off pounding her from behind. Marvellously confident performances both.
For me this was a distinct curate’s egg of a production. Despite some good individual performances, some scenes did not gel and the descent into madness at the end wasn’t so much emotionally exhausting as straightforward tiring. There’s no doubt the play amply portrays the horror that can overtake a soldier; but I also felt a little injection of subtlety could have invested it with much more power, resulting in its offering much more entertainment. It’s on until 24th June.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan