If Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music believed the beginning is “a very good place to start”, her usually logical view isn’t shared by this production of Woyzeck, which decides to start, so the audience is duly informed, at the end. Except this isn’t quite true, either. We begin with “episode 19”, but it’s only after we’ve seen it that we’re then told we’re skipping to “episode 22”. I don’t really know what happened with “episode 23” as it isn’t mentioned, though does not necessarily mean it didn’t feature.
Indeed, the only notes I made during the performance were episode numbers as they were called out and introduced – there’s definitely an “episode 24”. None of them last longer than the length of a chart music tune on the radio.
I am grateful for this adaptation from KDC Theatre (the letters used to stand for Kensington Drama Company but it is no longer officially any sort of acronym), particularly in its determined effort to make what is a very disjointed script into some sort of woven tapestry. As the author of the original German language work, Georg Buchner, passed away before the play was finished, it will never be known whether it was intended to be such a fragmented storyline. My personal view is that unfinished means unfinished, and so it is for others to fill in the gaps to the best of their abilities. The calling out of ‘episode’ numbers makes it seem like numbers being called out at a variety show in times gone past, and it works as a way of retaining faithfulness to the original text while making it clear that this is a company stamping their own authority on Buchner’s work.
There are certain sections in which scenes are so incomplete it is difficult to decipher Buchner’s intention. Even this company appears to give up at one point. After “episode 20”, a Showman (there are six: Michael Soakwell, Emmanuelle Andrews, Ian Russell, Gareth Hugh Williams, Alex Waddington and Lionel Laurent) simply remarks, “Goodness knows what that was all about!”, which, far from being alienating, puts the audience at ease. Much is indeed open to interpretation, and while some elements are made blatantly easy to decipher, such as the pun on ‘peas’ and ‘peace’, there are others that you can choose to let go over your head or otherwise ponder on at length afterwards.
The audience is taken on a journey, a metaphorical train ride, in which each ‘station’ is duly announced; there’s something quite Brechtian about six of the eight actors playing multiple characters, and the audience being addressed directly rather like, as I say, a conductor or guard might address passengers on the train. Thus it would be quite wrong to describe a performance like this as absorbing; while I felt drawn into the story, there was almost always an awareness that we are watching a play, a series of events that in this instance are based on the evidence presented at an actual court case, but with theatrical embellishment. That is to say, to continue the analogy, we never feel we’ve stepped off onto the platform and entered into the world of an episode. Rather, we are travelling through in the safety and comfort of the train.
At times, it did feel as though the kitchen sink and then some was being thrown at this show. At one point there’s a musical number (with a twist that came across as plagiarised from The Book of Mormon), and at another the audience suddenly finds themselves at a panto, with the ‘oh no…’ and ‘oh yes…’ cries ringing out. I do want to reassure those familiar with Woyzeck, though: all the elements are there – the earrings, the urinating on the wall, and the fairy tale from the grandmother figure, and all the rest. It’s the way in which these scenes are played out that is sometimes quirky. Some people will simply not like it that this tragedy has been transformed into something relatively more light-hearted. True, it is harder to draw out the deeper elements of the play’s themes than a more straightforward sombre rendering would have made it, but they are still very much there. Done this way, the play becomes all the more multi-layered.
There is a striking and intense performance from Scott Watson in the lead role of Woyzeck. I have always appreciated how Buchner presents the relatively lowly man (in terms of social standing) as a deep character with thoughts, feelings and emotions, and Watson captures Woyzeck’s tortured mind with aplomb and assured conviction. Faye Pulleyn as Woyzeck’s long-suffering partner Marie is equally well cast, struggling with various issues and her own flawed intuition.
I had always known, up to now, Woyzeck to be very dark, serious and reasonably philosophical. Here, it’s presented as a most unanticipated high-spirited piece of theatre. I found it strangely enjoyable, and only very negligibly awkward. Or, to put it simply, I liked it.
Review by Chris Omaweng
by Georg Buchner
Directed by Alastair Norton
Living in poverty with his woman, Marie, and a child to support, lowly soldier Franz Woyzeck has agreed to become a medical experiment for the regimental Doctor. But is it his diet of peas that leads him into the forest with a knife, or the rumours of what Marie has been doing with the peacocking Drum Major?
5-9 April 2016 at 7.30pm