Third Wall Theatre re-opens after a two year hiatus with renewed energy, bringing audience’s an atmospheric, deeply psychological portrayal of one of theatre’s most intriguing tragic-heroes. Director James Richardson picked a work that is close to his heart, choosing to create a production that is a personal reflection on some aspects of Georg Büchner’s masterwork, Woyzeck. This post-modern approach to what is considered the first modern drama brings audiences a living hallucination, bolstered by multi-media and casting the audience into the role of clinical observer.
Critic Lyn Gardner summarizes the appeal of Büchner’s Woyzeck—the source piece for this performance—beautifully in her 2003 review of a production by Cardboard Citizens in London, “Büchner never even finished his play; nobody knows in what order the scenes were intended to be played. It is its plasticity that has made this 200-year-old work one of the most influential plays in contemporary drama – that, and its concentrated depiction of alienation and disassociation.” This is certainly true of Richardson’s “elastic” interpretation of the text, playing as part of the TACTICS Theatre Series at Arts Court.
In Third Wall Theatre’s Woyzeck’s Head, the audience is asked to zoom-in their field of focus and become immersed in Woyzeck’s unconscious mind as he drifts away from reality and to despair so deep that he commits a murder. The staging evokes the human mind, resolved in 3D. The set comprises the frame of a large cube rendered in slight perspective. Two sides of the cube are covered in white cloth, turning them into projection screens and also allowing for some shadow play. The whole thing is a representation of Woyzeck’s unconscious mind. Woyzeck is stuck inside the box, and memories flow more closely and then more distantly as his unconscious does the work of organizing those memories. These memories are embodied by actors Kristina Watt and Katie Bunting, who wander near and far from Woyzeck and often drift into hair-raising, sing-song taunts. They beautifully fit into the stage-aesthetic.
The linear narrative drifts into the background to the point of near imperceptibility. The focus of this production is entirely on the emotional attachments of the main character, and the work of his unconscious. Andrew Moore portrays Woyzeck as a grasping, caged, haunted man. That Moore seems slightly miscast (I imagine that Woyzeck would look sickly-gaunt from his time in medical testing) is somewhat irrelevant, as Moore is just a representation of Woyzeck’s unconscious mind; a warrior protecting his fragile body.
The play opens directly with the murder, which gives the audience a sense that this next hour is in fact a memory play as Woyzeck grasps at thoughts that haunt him. In a sense, one can argue that Richardson has set the play up to be alienating: The audience knows immediately that this play ultimately centres on the murder and, what’s more, the audience is likely at least passingly familiar with Büchner’s work (if only from the program). As such, the audience sinks into a purely observational role. We are clinical psychologists observing a subject to find out: At the level of the unconscious, are we human or are we animals? And were the audience to become too emotionally engrossed, the clever soundscape (designed by Richardson) with its piercing ear-ringing affect and echoing text pushes the audience back to a distance. The audience is a reflection of two of Woyzeck’s antagonists. It’s cogent with Richardson’s own desire to display the psychological journey of the titular character.
The production as a whole successfully embodies the sensation of memory; it is rife with interruptions, unyieldingly busy, fixated and grasping. While elements of Büchner’s text disappear in this “reimagined” version of the story (for example, the class commentary), the production becomes a very close examination of one corner of Büchner’s masterwork. It can be seen as a theatrical experiment. Richardson has created a sort of meditation on Woyzeck’s unconscious mind, creating a metaphor for all of our base humanity. In doing so, perhaps we can see ourselves more clearly in Woyzeck, rather than seeing him as an “other” that is enmeshed in a set of circumstances that may or may not feel familiar to the viewer.
One problem arises with the staging, and that’s that it really does feel somewhat stagnant by virtue of its deliberately narrow point of focus. While the cube that represents Woyzeck’s mind is on castors, the possibilities of stage arrangements are still quite limited. The play hovers between theatre and art installation. Though a few projections help to off-set this fact, some are more successful than others. The projection of the peas falling, for example, seems to end abruptly as if the projection froze.
An inspired interpretation on the part of Third Wall Theatre, and hopefully Ottawa theatre go-ers have a chance to see more from the company soon. The play hovers at only an hour long, and it begs the question: What other corners of Büchner’s text could merit their own hour-long theatrical “meditations”? Certainly there are many.
Woyzeck’s Head plays at Arts Court Thatre as part of the TACTICS series until April 30.
Adapted, directed and sound design by James Richardson
After Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck
Katie Bunting – B
Andrew Moore – Woyzeck
Kristina Watt – A
Graham Price – Stage and Lighting Designer
Sarah Waghorn – Costume Designer
Laurie Shannon – Stage Manager
Cameron A. MacDonald – Assistant Lighting Designer
Kristina Watt – Creative Collaborator