Review: 'Woyzeck' at The Old Vic

Ed Ramsey

Until something close to you has been affected, it's difficult for a lot of us to feel seriously angry and emotional in the face of attacks. I believe this is a fact we have to understand as human beings. But I also believe that this doesn't mean we can't get worked about things that haven't directly affected us, it just means we should make an effort to get as many things close to us as possible, and that if we do feel extreme emotions, it's likely that has already happened. 

I realise that's a deep and sombre opening to what you probably expected to be a play review, but I wanted to open with it because not long after I saw 'Woyzeck' at the Old Vic, I learned that it had to be evacuated after one performance due to suspected danger of a terrorist attack. This turned out not to have been a danger, but it put me to thinking about how passionately I really love the theatre. I genuinely thought to myself that if a theatre (and theatre audience) were to be the victim of a terrorist attack, it would provoke an extremely sincere personal anger and melancholia within me. 

It is of course a saddening irony that Woyzeck itself is a play which explores themes of violence, manipulation, victimization and class: an important piece I think for the world of today. In this light, or rather dimming light, I decided to review the production I saw at the Old Vic, in the hope that it is recognised for the brilliant production it was. 

The production I saw was phenomenal, but phenomenal in a peculiar way. Undertaking the beautiful expressionistic style for which Buchner is famed, the production's set, consisting of crowds of panelled walls which they raised and lowered throughout; and its overall design, simplistic but dark, captured perfectly the sinister yet almost black-fairy tale nature of the play's original text. What's more the performances, most notably John Boyega's gruelling and powerfully realistic rendition, were excellent. Realism pervaded the air of expressionism- the perfect mix in my opinion. 

The production made fascinating exploration of insanity and sex, and the power dynamic revolving the two. For instance there was one poignant moment when the director used a touch of stage illusion to switch characters having sex in the background of one of the scenes in which we view Woyzeck's mental deterioration, boldly visualising Woyzeck's vicissitudes and the thoughts which help to drive him insane. 

The writer (Jack Thorne) chose to craft a new script for the production, and here was where my negativity began. Of course, there are multiple interpretations and translations varying from close to the original, to wildly different. This one, for instance, was of the latter category, changing and adding characters, as well as those characters' story arcs to the point at which we had what was really an entirely new play. Now don't misunderstand me, the text used in the play, written by Jack Thorne (known also for 'Harry Potter and The Cursed Child') was intriguing and exciting, an intelligently crafted play, clearly written by someone who knows how theatre needs to work in this day and age. However, it was not Buchner's 'Woyzeck'. This should not discourage anyone from going, but it was nonetheless an irritation for me. 

Many of us were a little surprised at the extent to which nudity became the norm in this play, but for those minds who understand its relevance will surely know that a play of this style and message, which often calls for a certain first hand exploration of animosity, arguably demands such things- within reason, of course.