Tuesday 6 June 2017


Old Vic, London
31st May, 2017, matinee

Some reviews – as discussed by Matt Trueman for What’s On Stage – have questioned the faithfulness of Thorne’s adaptation. Having never seen Woyzeck before, I still came out of the theatre feeling as if I’ve seen Woyzeck; not Woyzeck-Lite or Woyzeck in Berlin or Voidzeck or Woy-checkplease!. It is intriguing how Jack Thorne and Joe Murphy have emphasised that it is an adaptation/translation of Buchner’s work and not a version after Buchner in the way of Simon Stone’s Yerma after Lorca. And seeing as Buchner’s work is incomplete and that even the order of the fractured scenes is disputed (as Trueman notes) surely each new version is quite a departure from the original text. Jamie Lloyd’s mantra of ‘treat every new play as a classic and every classic as a new play’ comes to mind. Thorne and Murphy, working so closely with each other during this production’s infancy, have done both. Their Woyzeck feels like it’s nodding to a classic play and yet feels extremely contemporary in its themes, staging and language. In its essence, it’s a play that shows a man’s life spiral out of control due to external forces, including mental health difficulties, a dubious medical trial, a tumultuous upbringing, paranoia over his girlfriend, Marie, cheating, and from the horrors (and monotony as hinted in this production) of war.

Tom Scutt’s ingenious set uses 25 moving walls. The walls are stark and simple, hanging from metal chains, and filled with insulation, giving them a makeshift quality. They move up and down from the flies and side to side from the wings to create a number of places such as the claustrophobic bedroom of Woyzeck and Marie, long dark corridors and chasm-like spaces. They’re like machinery, imposing as they close in like shutters. They take up 90% of the space when fully used and dominate the design, the rest comprising of only a bed, a cot and the odd chair. The walls aren’t to be trusted though: characters are revealed behind them when they move, and in the second act bits of the lagging paper are ripped to reveal bloody guts spilling out from inside. They’re a reminder of the abattoir that sits beneath the flat and act as a reminder of violence that soldiers perhaps come across and a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

The little I knew of the play beforehand was its interesting use of space. This production doesn’t mimetically take us from the fairground to bars to fields to apartments in such a loaded way as I imagined but Scutt’s design still gives a splintered sense of space which reflects the fractured structure of the play and Woyzeck’s sense of placelessness: as Steve Waters has previously pointed out in The Secret Life of Plays, Woyzeck ‘belongs nowhere and owns nothing’. And because the stage is often so bare and cold (noticeably different from the Old Vic’s red plush curtain), military, medical and supposedly domestic settings feel effectively loaded with a sense of something sterile, temporary and alienated. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on but it did feel that we, like Woyzeck, were stuck in a stasis, on a border, between freedom and entrapment, madness and sanity, etc.

We hurtle through the play’s structure, towards the inevitably tragic end, seeing the external forces that drive Woyzeck to doubt his wife’s faithfulness and the gender of his baby, and then, ultimately, to violence. He turns on his friends, his family and himself, and it is increasingly uncomfortable to watch – from the animalistic and rough sex scenes which infiltrate Woyzeck’s consciousness, to the limpness of Marie’s lifeless body, dangled like a ragdoll from his arms. The rapidity with which the play moves is momentous, car-crash theatre. But despite the horror, you can’t look away. I’m reminded briefly of play’s which have similar (or perhaps dissimilar) structures like Mamet’s Edmond and Stephens’ Birdland. I’m intrigued to learn more about the play and different versions of it.

Thorne’s version has apparently made more of the part of Marie and commendably so. In Sarah Greene’s portrayal, she is loving, resilient and someone who has given up everything for Woyzeck. Ben Batt as Woyzeck’s colleague Andrews (a composite character?) is aggressive and selfish but also elicits sympathy in an odd sort of way, perhaps as he’s Woyzeck’s only friend. The marquee outside the Old Vic describes the production as ‘John Boyega in Woyzeck’, and the intention to diversify the audience and create a more accessible version of the play is palpable in Boyega’s presence. Having (shock horror!) never seen Star Wars, and only knowing Boyega previously from his affable chat-show personality, he proves himself worthy of the acclaim he’s achieved of late. Physically imposing, he broods and stalks the stage, his actions inconceivable, but his psyche pitiful as he transforms into a raving shell of a man.

Woyzeck runs at the Old Vic until 24th June.

Stefan Rhodri as the Captain and John Boyega as Woyzeck in Woyzeck at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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