Georg Büchner
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

Georg Büchner died aged 23 in 1837 and so definitely qualified as an entrant for last year's Young Genius season co-produced by the Young Vic and the Barbican. This lovably eccentric version of his greatest play was so popular that it has received a second invitation to return for a short run.

Woyzeck was an incomplete, impressionistic play that has perennially lent itself to directors who like to leave their mark on an evening's entertainment. It has been turned into opera by Alban Berg and, not too long ago, the Barbican hosted another version. That was directed by Robert Wilson featuring music by Tom Waits that ironically was described in a BTG review as "rather like a cross between Kurt Weill and Nick Cave of Bad Seeds fame".

Now, Icelandic company Vesturport, under the direction of Gísli Örn Gardarsson present their circus-influenced Woyzeck, with stirring and entirely characteristic music by the afore-mentioned Mr Cave and Bad Seeds' violinist Warren Ellis.

Vesturport had previously been seen in the UK at The Young Vic with a strange version of Romeo and Juliet in which the plot practically disappeared beneath a demonstration of acrobatics and circus tricks. This time, their formula breathes great life into their chosen play and tells the tale well, while offering many strange novelties, both aural and visual.

The storyline is simple enough. Franz Woyzeck, bravely played by Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, is an ordinary working man. He is employed in a factory that is covered in pipes rather like the Lloyd's building in the City. There, he is unmercifully bullied by Vikingur Kristjánsson's deeply unpleasant, jack-booted Captain.

To make ends meet, he also offers his body to a Doctor, female in this production, as a research guinea pig.

The joy of his life is his raven-haired wife Marie, played by Vesturport's Juliet, Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir. However, her head is turned by the tall, handsome Drum Major played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who sensationally makes his initial appearance suspended high above the audience singing the night's hardest rock song.

Once the Drum Major has cuckolded the ordinary man much to the Captain's delight, the tragedy plays itself out to an inevitable closure.

What makes this production special is the visual imagination of its director combined with the composers' haunting music.

The actors have a hard time, bouncing around on ropes, diving off the stage into a tank that surrounds the playing area and provides unforgettable images and, in the case of the protagonist, almost being drowned several times over, as well as suffering a terrible beating.

The moral is not forgotten amid the fireworks and we are reminded at the death to "stare at yourselves". We too can ignore or add to the plight of the common man or could become victim to life's vicissitudes.

This Woyzeck makes for an unusual and surprisingly delightful 90 minutes but must be caught quickly as the run is all too short.

Running until 15th July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher