Woyzeck

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John Boyega and Sarah Greene in Büchner’s Woyzeck at the Old Vic

Georg Büchner is somewhat of an enigma. Dying at age 23, in exile in Zürich for writing a revolutionary pamphlet, he created only three major works. Unfinished, the play Woyzeck was not performed until 1913, one hundred years after his birth. Yet it is said that had he lived he would have been the equal of the great heroes of German literature, Goethe and Schiller. Although he was influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Babeuf and Saint-Simon, he was so important a figure in German cultural identity that the Nazis did not burn his works.

Büchner’s work influenced all the major trends of theatre that emerged both pre and post World War Two — from naturalism and realism to the epic theatre of Berthold Brecht. Woyzeck is the first modern tragedy both in form and content. It is written in episodes and for the first time the tragic hero is not a king or aristocrat but a poor man. What we are invited to see is tragic injustice, the tragedy of the powerless.

Soldier Frank Woyzeck is kept half-starved by an uncaring doctor, to whom he has sold himself for a few extra pennies as some kind of experiment. The captain to whom he is valet denigrates him as a man with no morals because he has had a child with his girlfriend Marie. In the final indignity, his girlfriend succumbs through poverty to the charms of another soldier.

Woyzeck is a man driven mad by his circumstances, proof of Brecht’s adage, “First the food and then the morals”.

Unfortunately, this production directed and adapted by Joe Murphy and Jack Thorne fails to live up to that promise. The fragmentary nature of the original encourages adaptation and it is done freely here. The play is updated to Cold War Berlin where the British army is rotated from Northern Ireland. This setting, however, adds little to the play and, although there is much additional dialogue and talk of soviets and East Germans, it never actually affects the course of the drama. There is worse to follow, as a key scene is performed entirely in German for no reason that I can deduce, as it is not translated or explained.

The additional dialogue builds the emphasis on the psychological aspects of Woyzeck’s affliction and although the social aspects are touched on, it is just lip service. We get, instead, a heavily Freudian explanation for Frank’s actions with an invented mother character. There are also some nasty little attempts to get laughs out of male physical touching which frankly have a homophobic undertone. The latter gives a “West End” or commercial theatre feeling to parts of the show as do the jokily simulated sex scenes.

This hobbles the performance of the main actor, Peckham born and Hackney trained, John Boyega. He often demonstrates his power but is too often guided back into an English enunciated stage style. His final murder scene in which he is strongly supported by Sarah Greene as Marie is powerful although over argued, again with much additional dialogue.

Finally the show fails in that its main character is a working class black man going mad in the British army but the production is blind to all the resonances that might have. Which is odd, because what both the adapters — who were state school educated — and the director say that they want to do is open the theatre to more working class audiences. The problem lies in the fact that they spend too much time demonstrating the effects of society on people and not enough examining that society itself. So we get a psychological thriller but not a tragedy. It’s a missed opportunity.