Woyzeck

George Büchner
Barbican
(2002)

The great American director, Robert Wilson has become irregular at the Barbican's BITE seasons. In fact, last year Bob, an affectionate biographical play based on his life featured in the programme.

His latest contribution, in collaboration with the Betty Nansen Theatre, musician Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, is a reworking of the classic German play, Woyzeck as a modern opera. This is following in the footsteps of Alban Berg whose Wozzeck was also based on the play.

Wilson's greatest strength is generally in the visual impact that he creates for his audience. This is no exception: for two hours or so the eyes are assailed with a series of beautiful images which could have come straight from a modern art gallery. The ingenuity is amazing as influences include Cubism and the Impressionists featured in the current exhibition at the Royal Academy, from Derain to Kandinsky.

By doing his own lighting, the impression is enhanced as Wilson uses bold colours to emphasise his imagery.

This is then combined with the music of Waits and Brennan. It sounds rather like a cross between Kurt Weill and Nick Cave of Bad Seeds fame; lots of gravel in the voice and generally downbeat songs and ballads. The casting is appropriate as Jens Jørn Spottag and Kaya Brüel as Woyzeck and his wife Marie respectively both have smoky barroom voices.

The songs are accompanied by generally dissonant music which reflects the unhappiness of the characters on the stage. There is also an element of dance and movement which adds to the beauty.

While the production is a visual delight and much of the music is a very enjoyable, it does little to enhance an understanding of the plot. This is a sad tale of a man who apparently sells his body for scientific experiments, goes mad, loses and kills her in the most beautiful scene of the play. Regrettably, without the synopsis provided in the programme, this would not have been clear.

Maybe this doesn't matter as with Wilson's work: the form is genuinely more important than the substance and it is possible to have an enjoyable evening without really fully understanding what is going on.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher