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BWW Review: WOYZECK, Old Vic

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The very survival into the 21st century of an unfinished play written by a 23-year-old in 1836 is an extraordinary thing, made more extraordinary by the grimness of its subject. Even to call Georg Büchner's text a play - "the world's first working-class tragedy" - is a bit of a stretch.

But the fact that Woyzeck existed only as a series of fragments has been seen by dramatists as an open invitation to do whatever they want with it. This latest version by Jack Thorne gives the eponymous soldier a miserable backstory. It also updates it to a British Army base in Berlin in the early 1980s, post-Belfast, pre-Gulf War, and some 20 years before the world woke up to the existence of post-traumatic stress as a mental illness.

So far, so good, and putting John Boyega of Star Wars in the central role will do wonders for the box office. But while it's encouraging to see properly colour-blind casting at work, the choice of Boyega is otherwise less than ideal. For a start, an auditorium the size of the Old Vic demands decent diction. Fine to give Woyzeck a London accent, but if I'm missing half-lines in Row H of the stalls - what hope for those at the back of the balcony? Boyega also looks unfeasibly healthy and robust for a man with long-term depression and rent arrears.

The setting allows the play's Germanic essence to register. The doctor (Darrell D'Silva) who signs up Woyzeck for his risky pharaceutical tests speaks whole screeds in excitable German. And the opening scene - the only happy one in the play's two hours - shows Woyzeck and Marie (Sarah Greene) entwined in bed, he teaching her scurrilous German phrases which she repeats in her Belfast accent.

She has followed him to Berlin with their baby, but despite her gripes about the miserable civvy flat they can barely afford to rent, she resists his offer of marriage that would secure them army accommodation. Greene's playing of Marie flickers with a quiet truth throughout. If only this project as a whole were as subtle.

The play is, frankly, overwhelmed by the epic production that director Joe Murphy throws at it. Woyzeck is basically a chamber piece - much of the action takes place in one room - and cries out for a more intimate venue than the Old Vic, and less grandstanding, doomy incidental music than that suppled by composer Isobel Waller-Bridge.

Tom Scutt's designs, based on multiple unplastered partition walls, move up and down in serried ranks like squaddies on parade. Thorne's new text refers repeatedly to the smell that pervades Woyzeck and Marie's building from the Halal butchery below, and in time tears in the partition walls reveal them to be packed not with insulating material, but raw meat waste.

The supporting cast do their very best with the hand they've been dealt. If their characters seem cartoonish, it's because the direction is at odds with the naturalistic dialogue: Ben Batt makes a veritable Popeye of Woyzeck's priapic fellow squaddie, Andrews, and it was surely gratuitous to have him do a scene in the buff.

Nancy Carroll is a brittle monster of a sex-mad officer's wife. Steffan Rhodri plays Woyzeck's brusque commanding officer with erratic stabs at sympathy. He even asks him whether he "needs help", which muddies the waters because he makes the offer seem sincere. Buchner was a revolutionary, and his intention in writing Woyzeck was to highlight the unrelenting oppression of the little man.

There are other inconsistencies that threaten to rock the boat, the apparently fluid gender of Woyzeck and Marie's baby being one of them. A new dad who calls his girl-child "he" is clearly barking, and no horrific backstory about bad parenting and multiple foster homes can account for it.

A comment put in the mouth of Marie sums up what Woyzeck should have been about: "We're too desperate to live our lives anything but desperately." Somehow, despite or maybe because of its ambition, this production misses its target.

Woyzeck is at the Old Vic until 24 June

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan


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