Woyzeck

Fri 5th – Sat 13th August 2011

reviews

Madeleine Stottor

at 10:12 on 13th Aug 2011

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‘Woyzeck’ is not an easy play. Having read it before seeing this production by Theatre Oikos, I didn’t feel like I really understood it properly, so was hoping that this performance, seeing it live, would make it clearer. Unfortunately, this confusing play led only to a confused production.

The basic plot of ‘Woyzeck’ is simple enough: Franz Woyzeck is a poor squaddie being driven slowly mad by a dehumanising combination of military discipline, poverty, and a diet of peas. When he discovers his wife Marie has been having an affair, events spiral into a ‘working-class tragedy’ of anger and violence. What complicates the play are its philosophical and social comments; for example, that the poor cannot be virtuous, as a military captain conflates wealth and goodness. Much of the play is, frankly, baffling, in part because Woyzeck is going mad, his sky burning and whispering voices (very effectively portrayed using Brechtian chorus techniques) driving him to murder.

Theatre Oikos attempts to solve some of the play’s difficulties by using a ‘Brechtian Jeremy Kyle’ to explain upcoming scenes to the audience. Büchner’s play was unfinished when he died, and subsequent interpretations have been able to take a fairly free approach to his script. The modern-day persona used by Oikos is meant to offer ‘helpful nuggets and satirical comment’, and is part of the company’s attempt to politicise ‘Woyzeck’ for a contemporary audience. Caz Holmes plays the role with endearing, friendly clarity, but as a device the Showman narrator isn’t entirely successful. Informing the audience of what is going to happen in the next scene vastly reduces any tension, and the ‘satirical comment’ fails successfully to bring ‘Woyzeck’ into the twenty-first century. When society is blamed for making Woyzeck what he is, the audience is explicitly included in this; but it is difficult to feel any connection to the events of the play.

The young cast are of mixed ability. Alex Crump-Hall as the insane, pea-pushing doctor is excellent, terrifyingly twisted and tortured. Woyzeck himself is played well by Benny Ainsworth. His anger and grief are clear enough, but Woyzeck is meant to ‘go through the world like an open razor’ and it feels at times as though Ainsworth is holding back from his character’s most unnerving qualities. Marie (Sofia Rovnova) is an ambiguous character, requiring an actress of considerable skill to portray with any semblance of likeability. Here her motives remain ambiguous (why, for example, does she dance with the captain immediately after her confrontation with Woyzeck over the affair?) and Rovnova fails to articulate her lines quite clearly enough. Credit should go to director Julia Crossley, whose use of Brechtian techniques provides some of the most powerful moments of the play, as when the cast creep across the floor hissing ‘stab, stab’ to a disintegrating Woyzeck.

Part of the problem with ‘Woyzeck’ certainly arises from its incompleteness. The action reaches its ending but the play doesn’t feel finished, and Theatre Oikos don’t address this quite satisfactorily. Their ‘Woyzeck’ has some strong acting performances, and is well-directed but ultimately misses the frenetic anger which should characterise the play.

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Edie Livesey

at 12:07 on 13th Aug 2011

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The play is, in full honesty, pretty strange, but youth theatre group Theatre Oikos presents some committed performances. The cast should certainly be commended for throwing themselves into the performance, but the play is just too bizarre to be cathartic. Its main problem is that its concluding assertion, that we (society) have created the tragedy, fails to register with me, because I do not recognize the society of the play as my own. Instead I left with a sense of indignation at an unfounded accusation. I’ve never met anyone anything like any of the characters, nor can I imagine I will ever do so. Despite some energetic narration from Caz Holmes, I was unable to understand the motivation driving the actions of the characters; however, for all that, the play was reasonably enjoyable.

I think the play might have been helped had a decision been made as to when it was meant to be set. I found it very hard to work out whether it was modernized or not, and this timeless quality rather added to the general confusion. The characters could have been more recognizable as belonging to this world, which would have made some kind of connection with them easier. I suspect that we are meant not to connect with the characters. Woyzeck is ‘too poor to be virtuous’, apparently, and that is maybe why we’ve allowed the tragedy to occur – by not acknowledging his suffering. But I think it is the play rather than the audience that prevents our connection with it.

There were, however, some excellent set pieces. The highlight of the play was the voices in Woyzeck (Benny Ainsworth)’s head, which were presented as a kind of vampiric chorus. The drowning and tavern scenes were also good, but there is no ground for the symbol of the pea for oppression, even though it was continued effectively through the play. I liked the singing, costume and movement. I think my main suggestion would be for the allegedly oppressive characters to be meaner. As it was, I didn’t feel that Woyzeck’s life was that bad. His superior officers were quite pleasant to him most of the time. This is more a play for those interested in the influences of Brecht, and the development of modern theatre, than those seeking emotional insight.

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