Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is a play from 1836, but because it was left unfinished has been taken as the jumping off point of a number of celebrated and unorthodox interpretations, most notably perhaps Alban Berg’s 1922 opera Wozzeck.
What happens is considerably less important than the way in which the story is told, and here, young director Alistair Norton has chosen the Splendid Theatre adaptation, which combines a variety of mannered styles of theatre – Brechtian, Comedia Dell’ Arte and Theatre of Cruelty – and music.
The virtue of this kind of presentation, aided or otherwise by the complete disruption of the chronological line of the story, is that the audience is repeatedly surprised and kept engaged: something completely new is happening every few minutes – perhaps there’ll be a song, some choral speaking, a drum beat, perhaps one of the cast will tell us once more what is happening, or there will be another re-enactment of the central murder, some pantomime ‘oh no he won’t’, another mention of peas and pulse, another moment to wonder whether the pun on pulse is intentional or not.
If you’ve detected that I’m not entirely sure it’s successful then you’re right, but that might well be more a flaw in me than in the show, which was certainly performed with extraordinary aplomb by the young cast, Michael Soakwell and Emmanuelle Andrews being particularly engaging in their varied roles. But what plot there was seemed difficult to discern, and although I’ll be the first to concede that drama isn’t necessarily mainly about plot, an adequate substitute seemed also hard to find. In his programme note, the director hopes it will be ‘hilarious’, but the audience in general were not in stitches. Moments were undoubtedly funny, and it was a piece that one could certainly admire technically.
There was a great deal of theatrical invention – the game of ‘Operation’ being played at the front of the stage while medical experiments were conducted on the hapless Wozzeck was a prime example – and all are to be congratulated on staging a brave and challenging piece of theatre.