Woyzeck’s Head: a thoughtful attempt to transform Büchner comes up against a lot of dramaturgical challenges

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Categories: Professional Theatre

James Richardson takes Georg Büchner’s unfinished textual fragments  (he died at the age of 24) and “plays”with them as much as all other directors have done in the past. More recent scholarship has organized the narrative into a reasonable sequence of events. Sill, directors such as Thomas Ostermeier, Denis Marleau , Bob Wilson and Brigitte Haentjens among others have imposed their own stage esthetics to produce meanings of different sorts, often nourished by a particular formalistic departure point. For example, Brigitte Haentjens who was influenced by the physical work of French masters like Lecoq transformed the soldiers into tribal dancers, stamping their feet and creating a collective will behind the seductive routines of the Drum Major. In such an atmosphere, Marie, woyzeck’s wife could not refuse his advances. Scenes with the captain are transformed into torture, humiliation or even into sexually ambiguous and highly grotesque comedy especially when Woyzeck has to crawl between the Captain’s legs to shave his hidden parts. Ostermeier’s rendering of that was hilarious and unforgettable, a sign of the misery of naturalism approaching a more sinister form of critical expressionism that was to erupt onto the German stage and into film in later years. In fact Fritz Lang already seems to be muttering in the wings? . Much has been done with this very disturbing metaphor of oppression, brewing fascism and the rise of power-hungry individuals in an era when the rational thinking of science clashed with the irrationality of  romanticism and the debate becomes heated in this play.

 

James Richardson, in a completely original approach to the play, eliminates the whole socio-political context and locates the play inside Woyzeck’s head. The man is starving to death because he is part of an experiment where he is only allowed to eat peas. Time and memory play games with this individual and as he hallucinates, he hears strange voices, catches rapid glimpses of other people whom he believes are torturing him – including the doctors, the captain, even his wife, performed by two other actors in the show. Terrified by all that appears to be threatening him, suffering from his throbbing head, the site of his bloody hands and a sense of guilt, Andrew Moore’s Woyzeck,  lashes out and shifts us back to the moment when the  ultimate monstrous act took hold of his mind. But we aren’t sure if it is a cruel fantasy or a real act that took  place in this psychotic space  where the victim/murderer  is being detained. 

Since Richardson has eliminated the exterior world and limited the action to all that is interior, the play lost a lot of its intensity, its real anguish, its anger, its deep sorrow, its suffering and we see Woyzeck, reacting to his “imaginary” captors who are turned into robots, mechanical creatures, undefinable beings who hover around the “beast” and whose strange voices are blurry echoes and distorted sounds in his head…He is now the victim of his own hallucination, that suggest painful jealousy, lack of sleep, grotesque relations with others, bloody hands, a head burning with fever, terror and many moments that suggest a human being is falling apart. Woyzeck wants to get out, he wants this to stop. But can it if it’s  all in his head?

Clearly, from a theatrical point of view, none of this horror comes to the foreground because the text has nowhere to evolve. It is locked in Woyzeck’s head . The terrifying moments that Andrew Moore undergoes are very disturbing and we are engrossed in his performance for the first half of the show. However, the world he evokes remains within the same intensity, there is no evolution of emotion, no building up of fear that we can really sense , so ultimate loss of control, even though the text mentions the killing of his wife Marie. The emotion remains the same, the rhythms remain the same and because there is no exterior proof of any change, we see nothing. This is especially true because the other characters have no input, and all we see is the same frightened body which wanders obsessively in circles, creates monotony based on an oral text that repeats itself for an hour. Clearly, some more creative work on the actor’s body would have been a relief here. A character subjected to hallucinations and strange voices could possibly begin to somatise his imaginary experiences in a great many ways if the director were well versed in the works of Grotowski, artaudian theories or all the groups of ritual theatre (Chaikin, Julian Beck ) that explored madness on stage in the 1970s. HE might have had a lot more ideas about the use of the body in space. As it was, director Richardson used Graham Price’s light design very well, as It became a blaze of heat that lit up the plain walls of his “cell” , the inner prison of his own psychic nightmare. Richardson’s sound design was also very effective but it became repetitive and ceased to be effective after a while. They did the right thing by limiting the performance to one hour. There was nothing more in this text to justify anything longer.

James Richardson has gone through a very serious evolution as a director in the last years because of his association with the graduate MFA programme in the department of theatre at the University of Ottawa. His Marat/ Sade was a striking example of his new relationship with actors, and bodies and sound and the whole spacial world of theatrical creation. Now, as he is working on adaptations and new texts, textual practice has been added to his staging mix and that complicates the work of a director a lot more, especially if one is dealing with a great work of art. This performance is a point of intersection between an inspiring text, combined with performance theories based on the Freudian elements of the psychodrama while also suggesting much more awaits Richardson. His effort is palpable, and laudable. His actors did what they were told but this director still appears to be in above his head.

Woyzeck’s Head directed and adapted by James Richardson, reimagined from Büchner

Sound design  James `RIchardson

Stage and lighting design. Graham Price

Sarah Waghorn,   Costumes

Cast

Katie Bunting – captain etc

Kristina Watt  – Doctor, Marie

Andrew Moore  – Woyzeck.

Third Wall Theatre…presented at Arts Court.. in the TACTICS theatre season..


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