I first became aware of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck while at university. During my fourth year, I was grappling with opera, trying to find an angle that interested me enough to focus my dissertation on it, and my dad suggested insanity. The idea was triggered by the tradition of the “mad scene”, where a soprano would have a scene written in where she has an episode of insanity purely to give her a reason to show off her coloratura skills – think Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor. And so, I had to start researching operas with alternative representations of mental health issues, from within different operatic sub-genres, and that’s how I discovered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
My second encounter with the story of Woyzeck came when my uni pal and theatre director Alasdair insisted I join him at an immersive show called The Drowned Man, telling me nothing else other than to hold eye contact with any actors that catch my gaze. That was my first encounter with Punchdrunk, the first of many visits to that particular show, and the start of a long love affair that has seen me spend more money than I care to count on their shows – particularly when you factor in the transatlantic travel since The Drowned Man closed 3 years ago and left me without a local fix. So it’s fair to say that I kind of loved that treatment of Büchner’s tale…
These two treatments of Woyzeck touched me in different ways, but in both, I found myself invested in the characters, feeling helpless as I watched the tragedy unfold in its inevitable way, so when I saw early last year that John Boyega would be taking on the role at the Old Vic, I knew I had to see it.
A modernised version by Jack Thorne (who wrote This is England and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), it was very darkly funny – full of bawdy barracks humour which gave the play a rapid pace and made Woyzeck, Marie and Andrews all very likeable. It was well acted by all, and I did like the production, but I struggled to really connect with Woyzeck.
In the other versions I know, Woyzeck’s downfall is caused by a combination of his paranoia, an experimental drug trial he participates in, and Marie’s infidelity, and everything just grows and grows until there’s no way out for Woyzeck. In this production however, Marie never cheats, and it’s all in Woyzeck’s head. While her innocence could have made it more tragic, it makes it almost too simple. The combination of PTSD and the drug trial doesn’t take the audience along for the ride in quite the same way as the relatable, confusing concoction of jealousy, paranoia, stress, anxiety and the rest.
His demise is also very quick. Because there’s so much focus on exposition and establishing the relationships – not to mention getting some laughs in – once Woyzeck starts to come undone, it seems to happen very quickly, clinically, aggressively and with less reason, so I struggled to connect with him the way I did with the other incarnations I know. And that’s not to say the performances weren’t good – they were very strong, and I will gladly go see anything that John Boyega, Ben Batt, Steffan Rhoddri, Nancy Carroll or Sarah Greene are in in the future. I just didn’t like some of the production decisions.
Overall, I did enjoy it, and it was maybe more entertaining and funny than I expected, but it wasn’t the Woyzeck I wanted. But maybe that’s my fault for not going in with an open mind. I just wanted my tragedy to be a bit more tragic.
Woyzeck ran at the Old Vic from 15th May-24th June 2017. Info on the production can be found here.