Sydney Festival: Woyzeck review

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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.

Woyzeck is at Carriageworks until January 12. Featured image by Jamie Williams

16 responses to “Sydney Festival: Woyzeck review

  1. Came out of the play feeling that it would have been a lot better in a much smaller venue. We were a long way up in the gods at the back, too far to really see facial expressions well enough, and the production is not a opera where the characters are ‘masks’.

    Also felt that the big spring bed, after two hours was too dominant, nice metaphor, but overused.

    There was also a problem with the sinc of the subtitles that made it quite impossible to follow at times.

    On the otherhand loved the music, and at times it was visually great.

  2. I was at this play last night, and I think this reviewer is being far too generous. Un-watchable would be a better description. There was no discernible narrative, at least not one to warrant an almost two hour production. It does not matter what the story is based on or its history, what matters is the production happening before you on stage. If the director and writer are unable to properly convey the meaning of the production DURING the production, they have failed. Seated towards the back, I was able to see a slow but steady trickle of the audience leave the theatre as the production ground on. Flat voices, jarring and annoying acting, stilted dialogue, frustratingly moronic attempts at humour, the whole production felt very amateur.

    It is very lazy for some of the above commenters to blame an audience when a production fails to hit its mark. People writing that this is somehow because Australian audiences are un-sophisticated due to “utes” or reality TV, or some other reference to working class life need to get a grip: we are talking about the Sydney Festival here, a show at the Carriageoworks in Inner Sydney. This is not the same crowd as the Easter Show. If a production like this fails with this theatre literate crowd, the production has a problem.

    The only parts of this miserable and boring production that came close to be being engaging, entertaining or even informative, were the badly sung Waits/Brennan song interludes. And that is saying something because some of the voices were really quite awful.

    What I find galling about the whole thing is that this is a CURATED festival, unlike other large arts and performance festivals (such as Edinburgh Fringe). There is absolutely no excuse for such a poor quality production to get past the goal keepers, none whatsoever. Considering the cheapest tickets were retailing for $48, this is not a cheap ‘turn up and see’ kind of production.

    The Sydney Festival absolutely flogged this show in pre-sale, it being the first production to go on sale way way back last year. This I find perplexing. If this is considered a coup and a centrepiece of the festival, then I weep for the rest of the festival

    1. Thank you. I agree. I do see a lot of theatre and this left me completely flummoxed. I should not have to have to be fluent in this play or its interpretations before I see it, to understand it. And you do need to understand a play to be able to blend together all the elements (music, text, staging, history, contemporary interpretation, social comment) and themes to get that wonderful experience that good theatre brings.

    2. Nathan you hit the nail on the head. I too saw many people leave. I would think people go to the theatre to be entertained, to have an experience, to be engaged, to be challenged – but this show didn’t create any openings where any of this could happen. It was confusing, disjointed, there was symbolism on symbolism. DURING the play I was thinking – does anyone else get this? I don’t need to be spoon fed – I’ve seen many complex and intriguing plays – but this was hard to digest. I suspect the majority of the general public too would feel confused and disappointed. This play is definitely targeted to those who know the history of the work. For those even contemplating on going – don’t. Spend you’re money on something else.

      1. It’s sold out – so presumably the contemplation is done and the money spent in which case maybe advice on spending time on becoming one of “those who know the history of the work” might be more constructive.

  3. Seems to be a bimodal response here – those who know something about using the Internet before a performance of some moderate complexity/Thalia/Robert Wilson/Germany/Büchner/Berg/War/Life/Lunacy/alienation/drowning families in utes in dams and cerebral apoplexy generally and those who, like the ‘critic’ and Judi and her friends who couldn’t wait to get out but waited an hour, want to be spoon fed and should have gone to My Fair Lady or to whatever it is Frost is dishing up this week instead.

    I went the second night and found it succeeded brilliantly on every level except the less than best sound system (but then I like Lou Reid and bleeding ears) but that did’t stop me and about 1000 others – less Judi’s friends – being rivetted.

    I’d skip the opera Judi if it comes around, and tell your friends too, civilly of course.

    1. I think you’ll find I’m rarely too kind to Frost’s productions.

      All I will say is that I do have the requisite knowledge and experience to understand exactly what is intended in this work — of COURSE I understand there’s a half-baked attempt at some kind of alienation effect in the staging and this production is, to some extent, about a failure to make human connections. I know the play. This production is not complex or novel. And ultimately in this instance, I’m more concerned with the audience experience. I tend to expect a lot from audiences and be optimistic about what they’re able to engage with and comprehend — moreso than many, many critics. But I think this work asks too much of them for little reward.

      1. I know you do; my scatter gun, on the defensive, went a bit wide.

        It’s an oldie and a goodie – the engagement debate and the mutual and relative responsibilities.

        Can I add two things:

        a) the Robert Wilson (minimalist) approach eschews overtness especially with this piece“It is OK to get lost! You don’t have to understand every second. I think that’s the problem. Let the audience get lost. It’s OK.”

        b) the venue. It was my first time in bay 17. Row R. It’s big. If there was anything more I think they could have done to ’embrace’ the audience and break down the wall it would have been sound design (I thought the musical and singing values very high – some of the vocals just outstanding) which for me needed to be cleaner and much bigger.

        By the way, from Row R on second night, I would have counted only three or four walkouts with an otherwise very committed, stable and appreciative audience.

  4. Disagree hugely with this review and take my hat off to Nick Shimmin’s honest response.
    I will start where Ben finished with, “this is why people stop going to theatre.” This statement could not be more incorrect. The passion, timely precision (in conjunction with the live band), physical requirements of negotiating the ever-present net, and the palpable chemistry – all produced by the actresses and actors – was exemplary.
    The adaptations of the Tom Waits songs was hugely commendable. Tom Waits – if not performed by himself – is only receivable, appropriate and enjoyable if sung in the performer’s best Tom Waits impersonation.
    All involved in production kept the authenticity and grace (can that word be used in a production involving Tom Waits) that – if performed to European – would’ve been loved. The majority of dialogue is performed in German – and if translated into a full English performance – it would’ve been a huge slap in the face to everybody involved in the original. Have you ever watched Run Lola Run in English? DON’T!
    BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO to all involved in Woyzeck!
    Daily Review, please reconsider who you send to what for reviews – as once said, “this is why people stop going to theatre.”

  5. At the outset … I love theatre with its subtlety, nuances and symbolism. I knew the story and was so looking forward to this play but … 20 mins was enough for me and my partner. We left and felt lightened by our departure. I’ve never walked out on a play before so it says something about it. Within 10 mins another 7 people left, saying it was ´dreadful’. We didn’t wait around to see how many more hated the show. The music of Tom Waits was the only redeeming factor but even that was difficult to appreciate with the ‘overmiking’. What a disappointment! Friends went on the second night and only lasted an hour. They too couldn’t wait to escape.

  6. Fabulous, formidable show but too uncompromising for a Sydney audience. I agree that your connection comments are a bit strange – surely if the show is about anything it’s about a failure to connect? And in the expressionist tradition that failure to connect is not merely a ‘theme’, but thoroughly manifested in the show’s text, dramaturgy, design, direction, performances, etcetera. The ultimatele response is that yes – the audience feels disconnected.

    If you felt alienated, bored, frustrated – that’s wonderful. It’s a genuine and important response.

  7. what a stupid review, basically just describing what you saw. if this is the level of reviewing we’ve sunk to in this country, i suspect that’s the reason people don’t want to go to the theatre. quite a lot of the action takes place on the stage, under and unencumbered by the net, and as for the lack of connection, well ben, that’s rather the point of the play. when the connections are made (and they are made profoundly), they’re problematic or catastrophic. perhaps a proper theatre critic could do the review next time

  8. The comment that this show was not meant for Australian audiences succinctly sums up my experience. Luckily one of my companions was very knowledgeable about the play and it’s history and was able to explain it to me. Unfortunately my other companion, and unusually for her, had to leave halfway and was unable to return. Don’t understand why there was a lockout when the volume of the play easily covered the noise of those who did leave early.

    1. The comment that the work wasn’t made for Australian audiences sums up a fatuous and lazy response to this challenging piece of theatre. Surely the whole point of festivals is that they bring us different perspectives. Yes there are technical faults and people should have the freedom to walk out of a production they aren’t enjoying, but this was an innovative and visceral presentation of an extraordinary play that is too rarely performed.

      1. What totally nonsense. It was the play that was fatuous, not the audience, or the reviewer. It was lazy, and it almost became a parody of theatre at points….except it never once became entertaining or humourous. I wish I had had the temerity to walk out like a good 15% of the audience that did. Just because something is inscrutable and dense does not make complex. It simply means it is badly written, directed, performed etc.

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