[Review:] WOYZECK, Old Vic Theatre, London.

This review will consider the new adaptation of Woyzeck, written by Jack Thorne, directed by Joe Murphy, and performed on the stage of the Old Vic Theatre. The role of Woyzeck was played by understudy Theo Solomon on the night I saw this performance.

The first most notable aspect of this performance was by far its aesthetics and atmospherics: lighting, music and set design. As for set, the moving grey panels constituted a versatile and ambient feature of the performance. Its geometric movements related effectively to the military elements of the narrative, and its orange illumination when Woyzeck shows Marie the city lights of the Occupied Nation proved its versatility to not only possess a satisfying visual quality but also to be a subtle homage to the Berlin Wall. The only thing I would say was ineffective about these panels were the blood and guts that slowly started to fester within them throughout the second act. I found this highly excessive. Not only did it look tacky, but it seemed to have no reason to be, other than to work a (fallible) shock factor.

The lighting was sharp, creating a painful glare, which added a sensory texture to the performance, and a pleasing dark and eerie mist Upstage towards the latter part of the play. The silhouettes of Woyzeck’s Mother produced by it were also very effective. As for music, though, I found these to be lacking, especially in the First Act. The music was very repetitive and monotonous and was used much too frequently in transitions between smaller scenes which it need not have coincided with. Perhaps the monotony was to reflect Woyzeck’s taxing and drumming mental illness, but, for me, it would have been more effective to start with a more peaceful style of music and build to a harsh cacophony by slowly integrating the drones and suchlike.

This leads me on to the portrayal of Woyzeck’s mentality. This seemed to have no growth within the narrative, and this was mainly down to Thorne’s adaptation of the original text by Büchner. Where Büchner’s original text is so engaging is in its ambiguity in dealing with Woyzeck’s mental illness: we understand he is unstable but feel sorry for him; we question if events are real; we feel the world is against him but that he has somewhat created his own problems; and, most of all, we sense Woyzeck’s mental state getting worse. In Thorne’s version, however, Woyzeck’s mental state seems to have no real progression, and the focus seems to be on other characters and their stories as opposed to on Woyzeck himself. For example, the character of Andrews (Andres in the original) has a very large part in this version, whereas his role was much smaller — and his existence, dubious — in the original. What’s more, the character of the Drum-Major was only alluded to once in this version and was otherwise completely omitted from the plot. This character accelerated Woyzeck’s jealousy and instability in the original, and I felt this was a surprising decision from Thorne. These alterations of the plot took away from Woyzeck’s personal narrative for me, but perhaps the most disappointing change came about in the absence of the peas. In this version, Woyzeck is given pills by the doctor. More realistic, yes; but the peas is what gives Woyzeck its odd character, and to replace them with pills which would make him go insane was a very lacklustre and go-to decision.

I found the visual representation of his mental degradation to be very crude and unoriginal in places, the worst being the scene with the Omo Washing Powder in which the ensemble walks towards Woyzeck, Downstage Centre, like soulless robots, speaking ominously and ghost-like. I felt this was very poor and unimaginative. One particular thing I did like about this scene, however, was the blood trickling from the Captain’s leg. Another successful moment came in the middle of the Second Act where Andrews (Ben Batt) and Maggie (Nancy Carroll) were engaging in sexual intercourse. Having Maggie go under the sheets and return as Marie (Sarah Greene) was very effective. These moments confused our experience of Woyzeck’s reality and imagination, and subtle, suspicious elements like these would have been much more haunting and effective than dramatic drones and ominous, ghostly characters.

I did enjoy seeing Young Woyzeck sprint around the stage, his Mother’s silhouette dimly outlined Upstage, as this captured fragments of Woyzeck’s memory. I found this was effective. However, when these moments were overused, having characters continuously run on and off stage, one after the other, it quickly lost its effect. This was a very crude and literal portrayal of thoughts running through Woyzeck’s mind, and I found it was very repetitive and predictable. Similarly, towards the end of the play, when Woyzeck lies upon the ground, and, one by one, each character enters, says something ‘dramatic’ to him, and leaves — boring and lacklustre. The stage fighting I thought was awkward and unrealistic, mainly on Solomon’s behalf, and the decision to have Woyzeck break the fourth wall in a monologue directed to the audience, looming over his child’s [visibly empty] crib, I felt was unnecessary. I would have much preferred it be to directed to the baby — and to have seen, at least, the outline of a baby in the crib….

A more imaginative approach resides in a scene wherein the Doctor (Darrell D’Silva) speaks in German, abrasive and domineering. This was a very effective way to stupefy the audience whilst simultaneously displaying Woyzeck’s high confusion. Even the way Silva handled the fake cat in this scene gave it the impression of being real, which I commend. When this German speech was used again in another scene, however, the effect was lost. Perhaps the most powerful moment, however, was the choice to have Carroll as Maggie/Woyzeck’s Mother breastfeed Woyzeck. This was a perverse, almost Artaudian moment of high significance, forcing the idea of a natural and innocent act of provision from a mother’s breast to fuse with that of sexual, self-depreciative acts. The vocal confusion of the gender of Woyzeck and Marie’s child was also efficacious and complemented the hesitancy intended for the audience.

In terms of characterisation, there were certainly some good performances…and some very bad ones. Carroll tackled and distinguished the characters of Maggie and Woyzeck’s Mother very well, and this decision to have Maggie, a whore, mirror Woyzeck’s Mother was a very clever and effective one. The Captain (Stefan Rhodri), however, I cannot say the same for. Rhodri spoke his lines quickly and nigh-on emotionlessly, leaving no space for naturalistic pauses or to recognise Woyzeck’s responses before criticising them; although, this did improve as the play progressed. I could understand why this would be a conscious decision: to show the Captain’s egotism, authority and status, but it was executed poorly. Then, we have Woyzeck reacting to the Captain. As throughout the entire production, there was little to no change in Solomon’s characterisation. Solomon’s changes from frustration to submission to sadness and to regret were very minor. Whilst I would not expect an exaggerative performance, for this too would have been shoddy, some transformation is necessary. Towards the end, as with Rhodri, this did improve. I do recognise that Solomon was an understudy, but this is the main role of the play. Batt, however, I felt, captured the new role of Andrews extremely well, lifting this newfound role off of the page with great success. Greene, whilst otherwise satisfactory, lacked a lot of tension in her body in parts which caused for a bad performance. This was particular to the several — again, overused — moments wherein Marie was restrained/strangled by Woyzeck.

“A good piece of theatre but insipid in terms of drama.”

3 Stars

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