FringeReview UK 2017
Adaptor Jack Thorne and Director Joe Murphy create a more naturalistic, fleshed-out Woyzeck located in 1981 Berlin. Tom Scutt’s flexible design lowers rows of what look like mattresses as padded cells and the dance of these through Neil Austin’s stark occasionally expressionistic lighting pushes back Woyzeck to its more radical origins. Gareth Fry’s sound picks out the hallucination wrapping itself round Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score.
Which Woyzeck? is often on anyone’s mind who’s ever seen or indeed heard the piece; opera or one of the four draft versions of the twenty-five scenes left unfinished at Georg Büchner’s death at 23 in 1837. The fate of a traumatised, experimentally abused soldier and his girl begins the shiver of modern theatre. Woyeck still troubles every production with itself, as well as us, every time it’s revived. No wonder that’s so frequently.
So it’s slightly alarming to hear director Joe Murphy pronounce on this 180-year-old piece ’it can feel alienating… it’s quite avant-garde… and hard to get to grips with.’ I’d have thought that was the point, but Büchner’s fragments lend themselves to a fractal-like spiral of answers.
Tom Scutt’s flexible design lowers rows of what look like mattresses as padded cells and the dance of these through Neil Austin’s stark occasionally expressionistic lighting pushes back Woyzeck to its more radical origins, away from the explanatory realism Murphy and adaptor Jack Thorne adopt, incidentally building up Marie’s character infinitely more than Büchner’s original, mostly for the better. to emphasize that, Gareth Fry’s sound picks out the hallucination wrapping itself round Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score.
It’s an interesting creative tension when designer sides with a long-dead writer to allow the strangeness through – not that Thorne or Murphy wish to deny that either in several scenes. But we do see this through the soldier’s not author’s eyes. Thorne’s naturalistic response fleshes this piece in the fates of bullied boys he knew at school, the least predictable army recruits being those who actually joined, to grow an identity.
Woyzeck shows that’s not a good idea, and Thorne’s grounding this in 1981 Berlin a superb conceit. It’s close to now but both alienated from the halting steps we’ve made recently, and indeed seethes in a German environment. Thorne’s soldier has it’s made clear come from the frying pan of Belfast – acquiring an attractive young woman, testimony to his inner warmth – and come to the fridge of cold-war stand-offs. The greatest excitement is stopping a young woman getting over the Berlin Wall and letting the Stasi take her. Additionally, Nancy Carroll enacts scenes of the young Woyzeck being taken from the orphanage to watch her having sex, whether as prostitute or simply a visual abuse, even as a talisman, is left creatively open.
Some achievement, and John Boyega not only inhabits but summons the title part in scenes of agonized bulk and shrinking identity that fight each other and ultimately Sarah Greene’s Marie. Boyega’s relationship as a physically towering man cowering from authority and exploitation, indeed his mate Andrews – Ben Butt’s sleek beast of a performance from a feral man preening sexual worth – is harrowing.
You urge Boyega to fight back, but he’s in debt and unknown to all decides to earn money by trialling a hormone pill from German Doctor Martens, Darrell D’Silva’s creepy avatar as some kind of permitted Dr Mengele. The original allows collusion between Martens and the authorities though here’s it’s technically verboten, save in dream. No-ne of coure realises what’s happening to Woyzeck. At key points Marten lectures in German depicting Woyzeck as contemptible object, and in another dream sequence he and his company commander Captain Thompson savage him.
Boyega’s magnificence pulses through a torment of flinch and fleer breaking out in all the wrong places. When he finally vents his fury on one tormenter he gets beaten to the pulp he thinks he is. Batt’s character Andrews is an amalgam of Woyzeck’s original heedless mate and the Drum Major who actually seduces Marie. Here though what he gets is their bored, voracious Maggie Thompson, Carroll doubling this more extensive role alongside Woyzeck’s flashbacks to his mother. Here, Maggie persecutes Marie by refusing to help financially but recruiting her for a slog around people’s houses for charitable giving to her own glory, then accusing Marie of theft.
Thorne ensures the adaptation aches with what could have been. The play opens with Woyzeck and Marie enjoying a sexual joke out of basic German ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ and the effect on Woyzeck of Thompson’s regard for him, is equally alienating. Greene’s ardent, ultimately frightened Marie arcs a kind of withdrawing horror from what’s happened to the man she loved indeed in a way still does. A barber in the original, Woyzeck’s a fine masseur. That’s worrying with Steffan Rhodri’s sexually ambiguous but unhelpful Captain Thompson. Whilst he’s abusing Woyzeck Maggie abuses Marie and in turn Andrews predates on both of them. With Marie though he’s not answered, and this departs from the original too. Since we get more of Marie, this central crisis should have been explored.
The strangest scenes are closest to the original, and Boyega shudders out complete dissociation from his environment with terrible consequences. It’s not Woyzeck who’s mad, but his environment. You’d be mad not to go mad in it.
Boyega might be the key but Greene too takes on a centrality Marie’s never enjoyed before; the only pity is that this adaptation ducks adultery, making her too decent when the original Marie’s just trying to snatch a better life and a little joy. Still caveats aside, this is an interpretative milestone paving the way for even more fearless versions. And Boyega’s and Greene’s humanity – superbly trammelled by Carroll, Rhodri, Batt and D’Silva – is one frail answer to our own distracted times.