Theatre Review: ‘Woyzeck’ at The Old Vic, London.

When half a year ago I read that John Boyega would be playing the titular role in one of my favourite plays, Woyzeck, I was filled with excitement. Not only would I be treated to a modern revision of Büchner ‘s classic but, as the eager American man sat next to me said: ‘I want to see Finn!’.

Boyega’s performance was certainly commendable, his physical prowess and ability to suddenly switch from moments of affection to explosive aggression had the audience fearing Woyzeck’s every move, a particular highlight was when he suddenly bangs his head against the wall as he is unable to bottle up his aggression. Although Boyega played the adoring lover and fierce maniac very well, he did sometimes slip into a one-toned delivery when addressing characters other than Marie early in the piece and his displays of insanity sometimes appeared caricatured as he slapped his thighs and rolled back his eyes, but these were few and far between.

So, I saw ‘Finn’. But as for Woyzeck…I’m not quite sure.

Thorne’s adaptation of Büchner’s classic is a liberal one. Characters are removed and new characters inserted, the most effective use of which is amalgamating the Drum Major’s role into Andres’ (or Andrews, in this version), as Woyzeck’s best-friend also becomes his sexual rival. Thorne also transposes the play to 1980s Berlin, with Woyzeck and Andrews as British soldiers guarding the Berlin Wall. This is a testament to the whole of Thorne’s translation: rather than utilising the unknown, he embeds the play in specifics. This setting is no hindrance to the play, it works with the play and allows for a more historical case-study of modern soldiers affected with PTSD, but does raise the questions as to why it could not allow an audience to see a soldier in an unspecified location and draw those conclusions themselves.

As the play explores Woyzeck’s background, however, we see the specifics being dwelled on far too much. The play begins with a young Woyzeck singing, a flashback to his past life as an orphan which is mentioned throughout the play, we hear about his orphan upbringing nearly as often as we hear his name. There are also many allusions to how Woyzeck went AWOL in Belfast and the specifics meet the absurd when Woyzeck tells how his prostitute mother made him watch as she slept with a client. What is so magnificent about previous adaptations of Woyzeck is that the audience can draw different conclusions about the protagonist’s descent into madness, whether it be his background and the abuse from higher-class characters, the experimentation of the doctor or his sexual jealousy and feelings of inferior masculinity. These ideas are all still prevalent throughout the play; Steffan Rhodri’s Captain employs Woyzeck as his masseuse whilst poking fun at his intelligence and his financial anxieties; Darrel D’Silva’s Doctor speaks fluent German while presenting an insanity-driven Woyzeck to the audience and Ben Batt’s Andrews tells Woyzeck why he slept with Marie during a rather sloppy and unconvincing fight sequence. But these moments lose all impact as Nancy Caroll appears onstage again and again as the spectre of Woyzeck’s mother, haunting his every moment and looming over the entirety of the piece so that all other moments seem like straws on the camel’s back rather than knives into Woyzeck’s. A glance into the programme and one sees how there is much emphasis on Woyzeck as the first working-class tragedy, but unfortunately, this has been lost in translation. Instead, the audience is presented with a Freudian case study of a Woyzeck with an Oedipal complex.

What this new adaptation does do, however, is lift Marie to a more central role in the piece as she is given much more stage-time than in the usual texts. Sarah Greene portrays Marie exceptionally well, inviting the audience to see how she juggles her love for Woyzeck and her child with her frustration at living in such squalid quarters, as well as attempting to deal with her Catholic beliefs as she becomes aware of her own lust and ambition. In fact all characters are largely well played by a very talented cast, Nancy Carroll’s Maggie shows an insatiable sexual appetite and couples well in absurdity of the higher class citizens with Rhodri’s oblivious and sexually ambiguous Captain, D’Silva’s Doctor’s comical teasing of Woyzeck is latent with apathy and Batt’s Andrews serves as both a glance at what life Woyzeck could lead and as a comic relief throughout the piece, if perhaps too much so at times.

The central star of this production though is Tom Scutt’s set along with Neil Austin’s Lighting and the coupling of Gareth Fry’s sound design and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music. These all contribute to a set which is a marvel to behold, as large chunks of wall move both around the stage and are dropped onto it, its surface being ripped off to reveal intestines under Austin’s bold lights and smoky haze, accompanied by loud drones and haunting music. Every transition, which there are unsurprisingly plenty of in this piece, fills the audience with both dread and anticipation.

As the play reached its climax and Woyzeck and Marie met their respective fates, I did feel empathy for these tragic characters and their death but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the play Büchner intended to write may have died along with them.