|Programme art, sans pronunciation guide.|
Woyzeck (Voy-check, if you were wondering) tells the story of the titular soldier, his fight to get on in a society determined to deny him and his descent into madness and inevitable - somewhat predictable - tragedy. It’s a famously tricksy play, left unfinished as a series of non-ordered scenes by original playwright Georg Buchner when he died and variously assembled by contemporary writers to fit their ideas ever since. It’s often presented in an avant garde style, to some degree at least. The Old Vic has tried to do a more ‘normal’, accessible production - as the fact they feel the need to tell us how to say the word on the poster alludes to - but, honestly, I rather wish they hadn’t bothered.
My main issue with this production is the adaptation, which I must say rather surprised me given it’s the work of current playwright du jour, Jack Thorne. It’s not so much that the writing is bad - it’s generally not; it’s punchy and treads the comedy/tragedy line very well - but the fact that narratively I just found the whole thing a bit of a mess. For all the hyping in the programme notes about how accessible this version is supposed to be, I struggled to follow the thread throughout. The first act is somewhat clearer but it seems to be setting up for a payoff that the much less linear second act fails to deliver.
Thematic strands somehow also get lost along the way too despite them, paradoxically, being rammed down the audience’s collective throat. Clearly this is a play about class and age exploitation but this is illustrated by the occasional ‘theme’ sequence, usually involving Woyzeck acting as servant to his Captain, rather than being properly laced into the plot. Ultimately, there was just too much of this production where I couldn’t connect with what was happening on stage because I was too busy trying to work out what the fuck was going on. And often failing. This version feels trapped between the play’s avant garde tradition and an attempt at a more natural modernity. What it delivers as a result is the worst of both worlds - not natural enough to be easily understood, not artistically daring enough to be avant garde.
I feel for John Boyega in this production, marketed as it is so heavily on his appeal. He is clearly a fantastic, charismatic young actor but for my money he’s not yet got the chops to carry off a part as big as Woyzeck. And let’s be real it is a huge part; as demanding as any of the big Shakespeare leads and inevitably placed on the shoulders of a much younger man. There are moments of greatness in his performance - he carries off Woyzeck’s early cheeky chappy-ness to a T and in the final scene he gives us something big, bold and deeply affecting - but there are also moments of not-greatness. It’s this lack of consistency and polish, particularly towards the end of the first half, that undercut the performance as a whole. He clearly will be an actor more than capable of this sort and scale of part, but I didn’t leave the theatre convinced that he is that actor yet. Which, given how much of the play revolves around him, is a not inconsiderable issue. It certainly doesn’t make the narrative easier to follow either.
If Boyega’s performance fails to take off, there are plenty around him that do; the supporting cast here is excellent. Sarah Greene as Woyzeck’s doomed girlfriend is a highlight; spirited but sad, almost as angry at the world as her other half but hiding it behind a quiet strength that he lacks. Ben Batt is also incredibly watchable, and brings some much needed, well sold light relief (and nudity), as Woyzeck’s fellow soldier who is much better at playing the system and has no compunction, happily for us, about doing so. But for me the collective scene is rather stolen by the vastly more experienced Steffan Rhodri, who is never not excellent, and Nancy Carroll as the Captain and his wife. Both manage to make what feel like very slight characters (the evil posh people, essentially) into something considerably more rounded whilst still conveying the thematic point that they are the oppressors. Carroll in particular gives a performance of greater nuance than the script seems to provide. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the ability of Rhodri to be reliably top drawer in any accent (here, it’s clipped RP) and in even the most ridiculous of costumes.
Also working in the show’s favour is the fact that it looks and sounds amazing. Using the Cold War Berlin setting extremely effectively and without ever falling into lazy parody, Tom Scutt’s design is atmospheric and menacing, comprising as it does a series of bare walls (stripped to their insulation) that fly on and off the stage on industrial winches. Lighting is projected in stark spots and strips of pure white, leaving much of the stage dark and adding to the feeling of wrongness. It’s used cleverly as a highlight as well, subtly lighting the large British Royal crest over the proscenium at key points (and I like the way that having this crest and a very traditional set of red velvet curtains across the stage, rare at the Old Vic, emphasise the points about class that are being made in much less subtle ways elsewhere). The almost inevitable use of an electro soundtrack is well done too; again effective without being overdone and piling on the levels of menace.
That this Woyzeck is a frustrating thing is no better illustrated than by the final, tragic scene. This is where the production finally takes off, with Boyega and Greene both bringing their A game and delivering big, brave and uninhibited performances on a bare stage lit only by white strips of light. It is incredibly powerful and deeply moving. If the rest of the show was at this level, or even approaching it, then I would just have written a very different review.
Woyzeck is at the Old Vic until 24th June.