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Brighton Fringe 2018

Low Down

I haven’t been inside the head of a madman before.

I’ve seen Squall + Frenzy’s production of ‘Ubu Roi’, and been blown away by the grossness and the mayhem – but that was happening at some distance in front of me, safely separated by the division between audience and stage.

‘Woyzeck’ was right up close. No – even closer than that … I was there!


The Dukebox space isn’t very big, and Squall + Frenzy have chosen to do ‘Woyzeck’ in the round, with a small acting space in the middle and audience on all four sides, just about six seats wide.  So we were very close.

Close enough to touch them.  Or be touched.  When the drunken Drum Major insisted – “Drink up! Everybody has to drink!”, he leaned right across the front row to point his finger just inches from the face of the person sitting behind me.  “I’ll rip the tongue from your throat and strangle you with it, you bastard!”.  I could see every tiny hair of the badly shaven stubble on his chin.

He swaggered across the space towards Marie – he’s a powerful, cocksure nineteenth century soldier, clad in a blue military coat with two rows of silver buttons, his long hair tied back in a ponytail. “I’m a man!”  Then he grabbed her round the waist and pulled her to him – “And you’re a woman, Marie. I’m going to fill your belly full of Drum Majors!”

Ah, Marie.   She’s Woyzeck’s woman, and they have a baby. But as they aren’t married it hasn’t been blessed by The Church, and when we first see her she’s singing softly to the infant, finishing with – “You’re only the child of a whore”.   When Woyzeck comes in he’s dishevelled – his vest soiled and lanky hair matted all around his face, his words disjointed.  “There was something there again, Marie. A lot of things.  Isn’t it written? – And Behold There Came Forth Smoke From The Land, Like The Smoke From An Oven.  It followed me all the way to town.  What does it mean? …”

Marie loves Woyzeck deeply – but he’s very disturbed and she’s finding solace in the attentions of the Drum Major.

Robert Wallis, playing Woyzeck, is actually the same one who plays the Drum Major. It’s a small cast and they’ve doubled up some roles. This hugely talented actor gives us two completely different characters. It isn’t just the changing to the ponytail and the blue coat; Wallis alters his entire posture and way of moving, and the contrast – within the one body – may help to point up Woyzeck’s disintegrating mental state better than employing two different people would have done.

And while the two characters are very clearly defined, what it did for me was increase the overall sense of unreality of the piece.  We were in close proximity to them, as I’ve said, and as the characters made their entrances or exits, perspective made them seem huge as they loomed above us when they passed our seats. It produced an odd sense of twisted reality, of things seen in a dream or an hallucination.

Georg Büchner wrote ‘Woyzeck’ in 1836 – which explains the flamboyance of the Drum Major’s uniform – and it’s based on the true story of a working-class recruit doing his military service in a small German town. As a poor man, with a small family to support, he earns extra money by acting as a kind of batman to The Captain, and also by taking part in medical experiments for the unit’s Doctor.

The Military have always regarded common soldiers as expendable, or as suitable subjects for arcane research.  Think of the trials by the US Army, administering LSD to combat troops in the 1960s to assess its effects.  Here, The Doctor wants to see what happens if someone eats only peas.    Literally.     Only.    Peas.

Rather unsurprisingly (but The Doctor would of course say that we wouldn’t have known without the experiment …) the diet is sending Woyzeck off his head.   Apocalyptic visions.   Biblical manifestations.   And his own personal Avatar.

This is the other doubling up of cast that the production employs.   Isaac Finch is The Captain, a powerfully built man, sure of himself as an officer, confident in his social position and his wealth – this early in the nineteenth century his family would have had to have purchased his commission.  He regards morality as a function of money and class, and constantly denigrates the poverty-stricken Woyzeck.

As The Captain, he’s dressed in a military shirt, but then he dons a heavy leather coat offstage and reappears as Woyzeck’s vision – a weird mixture of Archangel and circus Showman, speaking to him like an Old Testament prophet – “Brethren! Think about the wanderer who stands beside the stream of time; the seething, the wisdom, of God!”   With a Christian name of Isaac, Finch must be the perfect actor for this role …

They all exploit Woyzeck, each using him in their own way.   The Captain uses him to emphasise the gulf in wealth and sophistication between them.   The Doctor uses him as a subject for his bizarre medical research, and his mental state as an illustration for his lectures.   The Drum Major just uses his woman.

Finally, all these pressures are too much for Woyzeck, and it ends in tragedy.

Chris Gates adapted and directed this production, with a cast that includes Verity Williams as Marie and Cyril Cottrell as The Doctor.  Gates played a number of roles in ‘Ubu Roi’ when Squall + Frenzy recently staged Alfred Jarry’s masterpiece.  Now, with ‘Woyzeck’, the company are gaining a reputation for giving us important European theatre works that are rarely seen in this country.  A wonderful addition to Brighton Fringe.

But don’t go and see ‘Woyzeck’ because it’s ‘Important’.  Go and see it because you want a unique insight into how human beings treat one another – the workings of a social or military power structure. And go and see it for a giddying trip inside someone else’s head.


Strat Mastoris