Büchner’s Woyzeck is one of the most dissected and analysed social tragedies in the Western canon of theatre; full of complex ideas of the individual and the destructive forces of the state (and the destructive forces of the individual). But at its core, it’s a simple narrative and this adaptation by Robert Wilson, with songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, strips Büchner’s tale of the lowly soldier who becomes the subject of medical experiments and his own jealousy, right back to the bone.
This production from Thalia Theater Hamburg, directed by Jette Steckel, is performed in German with English surtitles (although there were a few moments of technical faults in the opening scenes, which certainly didn’t help the audience’s comprehension). It features Blues/Weimar-era cabaret-inspired compositions by Waits and Brennan sung in English.
I can’t say if Wilson’s adaptation is more nuanced in German, but the English translations are strangely non-specific and mostly variations on the theme of how meaningless life is and how worthless the human race. Büchner’s work is essentially an impressionistic work with touches of realism, which don’t really pop up in this translation (and Marie — the one substantial female character — is completely underwritten).
At the centre of the production is a giant net suspended from the ceiling which ascends and descends, tilts forwards and back, constantly moving very slowly (stage design by Florian Lösche). There are plenty of visual metaphors coming through strongly as the actors traverse the treacherous netting and hang from it, but ultimately all the movement is so encumbered because of the requirements of this almighty net that the connections between the various characters are often nonexistent.
The cast are very hard-working and Felix Knopp employs plenty of energy as Woyzeck (he has to given the physical challenges of the set). Franziska Hartmann turns her role of Marie into something bigger than the text suggests and sings beautifully.
In fact, all the singing is superb (backed by an excellent band led by Laurenz Wannenmacher), but it is bizarre that everybody in the cast seems to be doing their best Tom Waits impersonations: there have to be interpretations of these songs which aren’t just gravelly-voiced blues.
The play runs for just under two hours with no intermission and looking around the opening night audience, there was plenty of restlessness and confusion. It all felt a little like school and no matter the work’s artistic integrity and heft, I doubt much of the audience connected deeply with it (although you can get the impression that some doctor somewhere is force-feeding you pees). The work wasn’t made for Australian audiences, and it shows.
There’s plenty to appreciate and admire, but about halfway through a thought popped into my head that I couldn’t get out of there: this is why people stop going to the theatre.