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Woyzeck

Georg Büchner
Theatre Mixte in association with The Giant Olive Theatre
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

German revolutionary Büchner was only 24 when he died of typhus in 1837, leaving this play unfinished. How he intended its fragmentary scenes to be arranged or what additions and changes he would have made to complete the play is just not known, but it remains a chilling work that is now considered a German classic. Rarely staged in Britain, it is perhaps best known here through the opera Alban Berg based on it so this production is certainly to be welcomed.

To make sense of it for an audience is quite a challenge to a director and it is one that Mixte's Alan Marni took up at short notice. As part of its policy Giant Olive is occasionally making its theatre available, when there are gaps in the programme of its own productions, as a space where newcomers can test their skills in a supportive environment. This is one such production introducing a new company in what the director described to the audience as a work-in-progress, pointing out that it had been put together very rapidly with only two weeks rehearsal and that he hoped to develop it further.

If audiences are expected to make allowances for any shortcomings then surely they should be warned of that before they buy their tickets and the theatre's advertising makes no mention of this being a 'workshop' performance. In future I hope that productions that are part of what they are calling 'the Giant Olive New Talent Academy' project will be clearly identified as such.

In fact, though hardly comparing with rehearsal times at the National Theatre or RSC two weeks would have been considered a luxury in the days of weekly rep and the company's CVs credit most of them with considerable experience. There is one performance of a fairground barker who would have failed to attract any attention in the market place let alone draw in customers, and a difference in scale from some of the other players that should have been put right by a few notes from the director but the problems are as much with the material as the actors.

What we have is a series of often very short scenes, more like a modern movie script than the writing of Büchner's German contemporaries, which provide a collage of incidents rather than tell a clear storyline - or at least that is how it appears in this production. Büchner was certainly an innovator in writing a play in which the leading characters are drawn from the lower classes and its political awareness kept it off the stage, despite publication in 1879, for another 34 years, but how much of his ideas come over?

Woyzeck is a soldier, exploited by those above him, who tries to make extra money to support a women he loves and her child and agrees to take part in a medical experiment by eating only peas. This makes him mentally unstable and, in a fit of jealousy when the woman becomes involved with a handsome drum major, he kills her.

As well as directing, Alan Marni has also undertaken design and lighting and devised a sound design that uses the repetitively minimalist music of Philip Glass and the sounds of modern warfare. He clearly has a strong visual sense and is teeming with ideas but has been far too ambitious for the time and resources available to him, with the result that what needs to be simple and direct is made confusing by his cleverness.

With a set is made up of wood pallets and moveable slatted panels he starts of with a barrier enclosing the acting space that seems like prison bars behind which the whole cast appear. There is no real prison in the play but perhaps this is a metaphorical prison of poverty and rank that keeps people in their places or, more loosely, of life itself. It doesn't matter, it's a striking image and theatrically effective. Marni then elaborately reshapes his set for every scene. The actors have to manoeuvre everything and sometimes bring on props and furniture and this takes far too long - especially when the changes sandwich a scene of minimal duration. If the changes were used to show us a continuation of the action or somehow to comment on the characters, they would serve some purpose but often they seem totally unnecessary. Sometimes, in the opening and closing of shutters to separate momentary scenes of indoors and outdoors for instance, they are certainly effective but often a new configuration just is not called for and they become a delaying affectation.

Why, I wondered, is the first scene in which Woyzeck (Tommy O'Neill) shaves an army captain (Rufus Graham) played with the captain hunched up in a shopping trolley? Is it a metaphor for their relationship? But it is Woyzeck who is treated as a commodity not the captain. I just didn't know how to interpret it, though it did enable Woyzeck to swivel the captain around as though in a barber's chair and both actors effectively make use of the imaginary mirror in front of them. But Woyzek doesn't have a barber shop. Just what is the reason for not just using an ordinary chair!

I don't have a script to consult but I don't think these soldiers are actually at war. So why the gun noises off and the swooping fighter jet overhead? The battle in Woyzeck's mind perhaps? Marni is being too clever. It is difficult enough to follow the story without these heavy layers of difficult to decipher symbolism. He needs to make things clearer not confuse us. I couldn't make head or tail of Woyzeck's scenes with fellow soldier Andre (Mark Gillham, a well-defined Artful Dodger in Giant Olive's Oliver Twist just ended). Alex Walker's doctor and Rob Marni's Drum Major are more straightforwardly presented and Jennifer Oliver offers a vulnerable Marie, though I don't think she has yet got a real grasp on the character.

I think we have a case here of the old problem of being too close to the material and knowing it too well to be able to see just what is coming over. Marni may want us to share his personal insight but he hasn't succeeded. To his credit he knows there is still a way to go. In putting a production in development in front of an audience he is inviting comment and I have therefore given him no quarter. I am sure he is right in feeling he needs more time to built on what he offers here. More rehearsal would help develop performances and give him time to see what could be trimmed back to give the clarity that this production needs.

Ends 14th February 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton