Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Woyzeck

Georg Büchner & Sebastian Rex
Acting Like Mad
New Diorama Theatre

The Lover & The Woyzeck Credit: Richard Davenport

This new production of Georg Büchner’s unfinished play translated, adapted and directed by Sebastian Rex is mercifully short, but misses the mark both in terms of serving the play's origins and bringing anything new to light.

Having come from a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, the often-exciting company Acting Like Mad, falls short here by not being clear what it is that they want to achieve. The play, which runs at just over an hour, should not find it hard to keep the interest of the audience for such a relatively short period of time. It fails however, as it is unsure which of the themes contained within the play it most wants to engage with and which to drop.

The Woyzeck touches on so many of the ideas and themes contained within the original, but explores none in depth. Büchner’s text asks if jealousy is an intrinsic part of human nature, questions the link between class and morality, whilst looking at the impact of military service on a potentially unstable young mind.

It is thematically a famously complicated play, which has been interpreted in many different ways since being left unfinished by Büchner’s death in 1837. Here the production loses fragments of the plot, characters and key moments but never feels like it knows why it has done so. There is no notion of a sharp, streamlined, one-hour attack on anything, but rather a muddied wash in which the four actors try their best to keep an inconsistent and erratically paced text moving along.

One moment in the play sees The Drunk (Sarah Hall) telling the audience that if you say something enough it loses its meaning. It is an unfortunate coincidence that at that point in the production this only served to highlight that the general wash and lack of light and shade on the stage had rendered the watcher numb to any meaning that might be trying to show itself.

Anna Soboleva’s design is, for the most part, simple and effective, but reuses a guillotine motif to such an extent that The Woyzeck’s (Edward Evans) execution is not so much foreshadowed in the Greek sense, but rather highlighted, telegraphed, and flagged up at every opportunity.

The play begins with the audience being told it will end with the public execution of The Woyzeck, a guillotine hangs above the action for the duration, whilst shards of glass, pieces of confetti and even cocktail decorations are shaped like a guillotine blade. The symbolism is so unrelentingly blunt that it loses any meaning that could have otherwise been generated by a more focused subtlety.

Another problem for the production is that the actors almost always seem to be existing in their own world. What they say is unrelated to both the people with whom they share the stage and the circumstances in which they are living. This strange detachment is so prominent that it could be driven by a stylistic decision, possibly designed to play on a mood of the ethereal and surreal. If this is the case, the reality is that it simply makes the production hard to watch and almost entirely un-engaging.

The Oppressor (Jamie Laird) is given a strong and interesting vocal presence by Laird, whilst The Lover (Elisa King) has a reckless energy which intrigues and tugs at something much exciting than what is explored here.

The Woyzeck could be a riveting seventy-minute thriller that focuses on any number of fascinating ideas; here, however, it is a mess that momentarily threatens to intrigue before moving onto the next equally unexcavated idea.

Reviewer: Alisdair Hinton