We know from the beginning what’s going to happen because it is the first thing we see – a grisly murder plays out to the opening strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with a drum and bass backing; a good opening, no less moving for its stylishness. A man who could have been perfectly ordinary is driven mad enough to do the very worst thing he could ever imagine. When the lights come up on Woyzeck, alone and terrified and trapped within the walls of a cube reminiscent of a doodle on your trapper keeper, you feel his dread.
Woyzeck cannot leave the confines of the cube. Attempting to do so triggers deafening alarms and the occasional electric shock, however the walls around him do not prevent us from witnessing his descent into insanity or prevent his tormenters from entering to torture him according to their whims.
Woyzeck is a poor soldier who does odd jobs for the officers, who enjoy beating him and humiliating him, particularly the Captain who relishes explaining how he lacks the very qualities that make one human, particularly morals and reasoning, and is therefore no better than an animal. To support his family, he signs up for medical experiments where he is allowed to eat nothing but peas and is further beaten and humiliated. He is yelled at constantly by everyone, their favourite insult, his name which is always spit out as a taunt; except Maria, his wife and the mother of his young son who speaks gently to him and calls him Franz.
Maria makes the mistake of catching the eye of a handsome drum major and eventually Woyzeck, going out of his mind on constant torture and hallucinating from a diet of nothing but peas, confronts the drum major and is further humiliated. Later, in a fit of rage he stabs Maria to death by a pond. When he realizes what he’s done, he is horrified and driven even further into insanity, while the locals gossip happily that they have had “a real murder.”
Woyzeck (the play) was incomplete at the time of its author’s death in 1837. Georg Büchner was twenty-three when he succumbed to typhus, leaving about twenty-five fragments of scenes behind in no particular order and with an ambiguous ending. Resurrected and edited forty years after his death and published, though not performed until the early twentieth century, it quickly gained the admiration of the expressionists and an enduring place not just in German theatre but around the world.
Its theme at the time of its writing was radical, essentially a cry for human rights when the concept was still very far off, and the incomplete fragments allow every new generation of artist to put it together in a different way. It has a notable recent adaptation that is a collaboration between the avant-garde director Robert Wilson and musicians Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan that looks pretty darn weird on YouTube. I had never heard of this play before so this is naturally the first version I have ever seen and it has certainly taken hold of me.
Director James Richardson takes a minimalist approach not just to the set but to the time and place which are ominously nowhere and no particular time, though there is a retro-futuristic bent to Sarah Waghorn’s very cool costumes. The cast is equally stripped down, and I was mesmerized by all of the performances. Katie Bunting and Kristina Watt play the parts of all of Woyzeck’s tormenters, making several unique characters easily recognizable. They are a dreadful pair, their constant sing-song exhortations of “Take it easy Woyjeck” effectively get under the skin.
Maria’s scenes are gentler in tone but still laced with dread and her creepy lullaby is a prettily disturbing highlight. Woyzeck’s only outlet for eloquence is in suffering and Andrew Moore’s suffering is eloquent. Bleeding through the performance is a man who could have loved and lived had he been allowed. Graham Price’s simple staging and stark lighting place us directly in Woyzeck’s hell. I am looking forward to seeing future productions from Third Wall.
Woyzeck’s Head is on at Arts Court (2 Daly Ave) until April 30, 2016 as part of TACTICS. Tickets are $20-$25 and available online.