Review: The Woyzeck

Woyzeck’s lover icily tells him that no one touches her without permission, and Woyzeck retorts with surprise that his lover has developed character. However, character is exactly what Acting Like Mad’s production of The Woyzeck lacks.

Büchner’s original Woyzeck is taken from a true story about a man who killed his lover but claimed madness. It centres on the poor and oppressed man, subjected by his status to acting lower than an animal, and leads us to question whether man or society is to blame for his actions. Büchner died before he could finish Woyzeck or put the scenes in order, which makes the script interesting to experiment with, allowing every production to offer something different. In this adaptation by Sebastian Rex (who is also artistic director of Acting Like Mad), the supporting characters are nameless caricatures: The Lover, The Drunk and The Oppressor. The actors use big gestures and flat characters, losing their way as the style evolves from something Brechtian into naturalism, then physical theatre, then back again. I studied Woyzeck in-depth at A Level so am familiar with the play and some of its different interpretations, yet was left at a loss as to the intent of this convoluted version.

Rex’s script isn’t sure of itself and neither is the delivery from the actors. Laird does have authority in his role as The Oppressor, but it is never quite clear whether he is playing multiple roles or simply one character who amalgamates several of the male characters from the original play. Büchner’s vivid descriptions don’t sit convincingly in the dialogue between Sarah Hall (The Drunk) and Elisa King (The Lover), meaning this comes across as forced. Edward Evans plays Woyzeck as seemingly unaware that he is ill –  we can imagine Rex has directed Evans to play a madman as a sane man. This isn’t a problem in itself, but the character is let down by Evans’ dullness of tone and very clear snap into madness (which, if it wasn’t obvious enough, is clearly indicated in James E. Anderson’s soundtrack).

There are aspects of the play that are heavily overdone. Although I appreciate the social significance of Büchner’s play, I think it’s still fair to say that the animal metaphors are overused. Rex has left these in the script but Evans’ impressively accurate physical portrayal of the animals stops this seeming excessive. Similarly, the physicalisation of Laird and King’s sex scene is heated and rhythmical, and leaves an impact. The guillotine motif, however, is wildly overdone: a guillotine sits suspended (and unused) above the stage throughout, the lake is made of guillotine shards, the baby is made of guillotine shards, even King’s earrings are gargantuan shards. The motif is clear – the sharp shapes and garish primary colours have even made their way into the costume design – yet we are left unsure why Rex has placed so much importance upon Woyzeck’s beheading. The original Woyzeck was reportedly the last man to have ever been punished by beheading but this ending wasn’t written by Büchner, leaving it open for interpretation. We are left confused, not knowing if the guillotine motif is intended as an image of Woyzeck’s violence or of his martyrdom.

The Woyzeck has no clear direction. The production looks low budget and the performances fail to hold the audience, making this production appear unprofessional. You can see that there were good ideas in the production, but the lack of an overriding sense of order means they simply do not work.

The Woyzeck runs at the New Diorama Theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website. Photograph by Richard Davenport.