You can't be a purist about Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. When Buchner died in 1837 aged only 23, he left only a series of sketched scenes without even a fixed running order. So the Icelandic Vesturport company's 80-minute aerialist, future-dystopian version may seem far removed from the fields we know, but one can't say it traduces an original of which so little is authoritatively fixed.
As 19th-century Germany was a society dominated by militaristic social codes, so our own world is corporate in outlook, hence director Gísli Örn Garðarsson turns the army company to which Woyzeck is attached into a huge but undefined factory, with a jungle of ducts dominating the upstage area. Some dialogue is changed or interpolated, but by far most of it is Büchner's. The simpleton Woyzeck is abused both by factory management and the site's doctor; powerless to stop his wife Marie cavorting with the company's CEO (alias the Drum Major), his jealousy grows until he drowns her in the water tanks which border the raised portion of the stage.
Like or loathe what Vesturport are doing with the play, they cope far better with the Barbican's current hangar-like configuration than The Knight Of The Burning Pestle, their predecessor show in the "Young Genius" strand. There are aquatic routines, aerial rope work, and the Drum Major makes his entrance on a bungee trapeze directly above the audience, bawling a raucous song in his own praise and accompanied by a dozen minions onstage kitted out as cartoon versions of the song's composer, Nick Cave.
Cave is no stranger to the play's territory of grotesques and jealousy, but in fact the majority of his and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis's original score plays to another of his strengths, that of sometimes simplistic but always intense lyricism, as the nobodies Woyzeck and Marie struggle to find words for their thoughts and feelings. It is as potent as Tom Waits' score for Robert Wilson's production of the same play (seen at the Barbican in 2002).
Despite all this hoopla, there was the occasional hiatus on press night as actors gave their first public performance of the piece in English. I expect this production to be greeted more sniffily than the company's triumphant reinvention of Romeo And Juliet, which proved a cult hit in the West End last year; but the sniffers are wrong. This Woyzeck works.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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