Robert Tanitch reviews Woyzeck at The Old Vic, London SE1
Woyzeck is often regarded as the first modern play and forerunner of the social dramas of the 19th century. Georg Büchner wrote it in 1837. But there is no definitive text, just fragments of paper, because he died of typhoid before he could finish it. He was only 24.
The play was not performed on any stage until 1913.
Woyzeck, a simple-minded soldier barber, is degraded and tormented by everybody. He is also being used as a guinea pig for a new drug by a doctor and it is this drug which finally drives him mad.
This bleak, brutal, cruel story, based on a real-life murder case, is written in a series of short, sharp, expressionistic scenes, and is a fierce indictment of society and the way it treats people on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Since the script is unfinished there have been many adaptations. The best is Alban Berg’s 1925 opera whose abrasive, dramatic score was inspired by the horrors of World War 1.
There was an excellent German expressionistic production by the legendary, avant-garde American director, Robert Wilson, to music by Tom Waites, which premiered in 2000.
The actor I remember most is Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1978 film.
At The Old Vic the intention of director Joe Murphy and his adaptor, Jack Thorne, is to make Woyzeck more accessible to a broader audience and to this end they have cast John Boyega in the leading role.
The production is a slow burner and is never as harrowing as it ought to be. There is, however, a lot of vulgar language, gratis nudity and energetic sex.
The story-line has been radically revised and updated to the Cold War era and set in Berlin in 1981. Woyzeck is now an illiterate British soldier still suffering traumas from childhood (abandoned by his mother) and traumas experienced during active service in Belfast.
There is nothing in Tom Scutt’s set to suggest Berlin; but the use of rows and rows of huge panelled blocks going up and down and sideways is visually very effective.
As Star Wars was a major turning point in John Boyega’s film career so will Woyzeck be a major turning point in Boyega’s stage career.
It could be argued he looks too healthy, too muscular, too well-fed, too intelligent, and not destitute enough. His performance is at its most striking in the final act when he goes completely bonkers.
“I am doing this because I love you,” he says over and over again as he murders his Irish-Catholic common-law wife (Sarah Greene). Desdemona would be the first to appreciate the moment.