For Georg Büchner to have died at the age of 23 — the same age as this reviewer — and leave behind a play of Woyzeck’s profundity is mind-boggling. Admittedly, the drama was only discovered in fragments — numerous directors have sought to impart their own contemporary stamp on proceedings to complete the script, and this production by Gavin McAlinden is no different. But it is a testament to rare genius that a play that is 184 years old is still able to resonate when performed by a stellar company such as The Acting Gymnasium.
Franz Woyzeck (Andreas Krügersen) is a citizen held under the dehumanising thralldom of The Doctor (Agnes Panasiuk). There is more than a taste of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein amongst proceedings, as our ostracised protagonist is forced through all manner of suffering and mortification, all in the name of scientific progress.
Much of the script revolves around that classic Enlightenment fixation of what is ‘natural’: the ‘natural order’ of things as ordained by thousands of years of patriarchal dominion, or the Rousseauian notion that we are all in fact equal in nature, and it is only uncontrollable circumstances that means we are born into different social positions. Büchner suggests that while the latter is true, the tragedy for individuals like Woyzeck is that the world of cruel authoritarianism that upholds the ‘natural order’ remains irrevocable.
McAlinden’s production holds its protagonist in a Kafkaesque world populated by sinister soldiers and guards that represent an imperceivable authority. But the emphasis on social justice is matched with a pull towards absurdity, as Woyzeck’s story is interlaced with a parallel narrative of a night of performances at a cabaret club in Weimar Germany. This might sound a little random but somehow it works, with the immersive cabaret environment really pulling the socially distanced audience into the action. The cast perform a number of songs that drew on not only cabaret tradition, but also English ballads and more classical music, all of which build a self-conscious soundscape that imparts melancholic energy totally relevant to Büchner’s play.
For actors who have most likely been out of work for the past six months, the cast is in great shape. Largely rehearsed via zoom, and with only one full run-through prior to press night, there is the occasional scene where interactions could have perhaps been finessed. But individual cast members largely have their performances down to a tee. The real star of the show is Kia Kielty, who plays Woyzeck’s adulterous wife Marie with such bright-eyed, naive wonderment. She is the enigmatic, Tess d’Urbervilles-like heart of the play: a beautiful and mysterious soul whose suffering is always that degree greater than Woyzeck’s on account of her gender.
Other highlights include Agnes Panasiuk’s brilliantly wild-eyed Christopher Lloyd-like Doctor, as well as Clayton Black, who as The Captain screws up his devilishly handsome face into snarling, insane tyranny at the flick of a switch. With a low production value and limited prospect of rehearsal, it is ultimately Woyzeck’s cast that gives it its human heart. The warm smiles on the face of each cast member at the curtain call, back on the indoor stage after so long, was a joy to behold.
Woyzeck played at Theatro Technis from 14–20 September. For more information, visit Theatro Technis online.