Thursday, 31 October 2013


Canada Water Cultural Space, London
31 October 2013

The poster, from Scene Productions.
A towering dramatic masterpiece, both in text form and in this realisation.

Sometimes a small-scale, bootstrap production can be revelatory, can remind us of an aspect of theatre hardly possible with larger budgets and larger audiences. This was one of those productions. Everyone should see it.

B├╝chner was born 200 years ago, the same year as Wagner and Verdi, two of the pinnacles of High Romantic drama. Part of my respect for his achievement is therefore historical: how could a drama as expressionist, as proto-Brechtian as Woyzeck be written at this time, and indeed well before either of his great contemporaries reached maturity?

This is misleading: the work survives only in fragments, and is significantly incomplete. So we don’t know how the author might have wanted to present it as a finished product. We might be disappointed if we found a finished version somewhere.

All this historical information is secondary. More importantly, the drama we have now creates a powerful impact, and if the author can’t completely escape his time, so that we sympathise more with the two central characters than we are allowed to do in say Brecht, for me this is a great strength.

An important part of this impact is the ambiguity around the cause of the murder. Woyzeck has certainly been oppressed by those grotesque pillars of society, the captain and the doctor, but he is also shown to be a poetic critic of that society and possessing an acute conscience in spite of his claim to the contrary.

The painful impossibility of resolving Woyzeck’s guilt raises the work to tragedy, as we wonder whether a less callous society could prevent such crimes.

Due to its fragmentary nature, any performance of this work is an adaptation in a more extended sense than is typical with other works in the canon. Here, it is performed by three actors in around an hour without interval. This means some scenes are shortened, others necessarily dropped altogether, and there are seeming additions: inside the showman’s tent we get not only a man-turned horse but a man-turned-ape.

It succeeds, for this is a very physical, mime-influenced production. Perhaps it overstates the grotesque nature of the characters, but I can’t see that as a weakness in such an expressionist piece.

The director has unobjectionably updated the setting to the great European war of 1914-18, and has Andres die going over the top, a terror which plausibly adds to the trauma and isolation felt by Woyzeck. One of the finest scenes in this production is a simple puppet image of death looming over the character in his final descent into murderous judgement on Marie.

My only criticism is that I needed to root around Scene Production's website to work out the cast and creative team. I'll retain their anonymity by simply stating they were all magnificent.

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