20 June 2017


*I do not own any of these images* Credit: The Old Vic

I heard about the new production of Woyzeck through John Boyega's social media platforms: the London born actor plays the lead in the play, written by Georg Bruchner and directed by Joe Murphy, with Jack Thorne bringing the new version to life.

John Boyega was unable to perform the night we saw the play - but I want to emphasize how good the entire production was, although Boyega's lead role was the reason I first bought my ticket, it's vital to recognize how much hard work each actor puts into their performance. A reminder to appreciate each performer, however popular they are. Unfortunately I didn't catch in the name of the wonderful under-study - but his acting is what you'd expect to see in a renowned London Theatre.

This review will briefly explore some of the play's main themes, before discussing the set design and artistic direction.

*This review includes minor spoilers!*

"It's 1980s Berlin. The Cold War rages, and the world sits at as crossroads between Capitalism and Communism. On the border between East and West, a young soldier (John Boyega) and the love of his life are desperately trying to build a better future for their child."

- The Old Vic (link here)

 I'd describe the play as a psychological drama, with brief pockets of comic relief. The presence of violence and war is established from the opening act, with two soldiers, their features shadowed by the back-light, marching silently towards the audience with large guns.

This first intimidating image already speaks of the characters' situation: soldiers used as pawns, their physical traits and personalities remaining unseen and unappreciated by the outside world, stripped of their identity. The guns inducing a feeling of worry and fear. The uncertainty of warfare, what could be, what could happen. A thought that plays on Woyzeck's mind: how can he provide a better life for his girlfriend and his child? How will their child grow up?

Woyzeck's difficult position leads him to test pharmaceutical drugs for extra money to support his family: a choice that backfires as he hallucinates, overthinks, and becomes aggressively overprotective towards his girlfriend and baby (we could even go so far as to say he emotionally abuses her).

Woyzeck's present circumstances and personal past traumas begin to intertwine, creating a nightmarish reality which gradually worsens as the play goes on.
The childhood trauma, emotional abuse, drug use and lack of a nice place to call home, the absence of any accessible help or support: all these factors build up towards a distressing, drawn out ending.

Throughout the play we explore Woyzeck's personal and professional life, the most interesting of which is his interactions with the other characters: little by little, his job and his personal life get tangled together. It gets to the point where there is no escape, from the War outside, the War at home and the War in his head: it has reached him on all fronts.

Set design and artistic direction 

 The set was fascinating: 30+ large mobile boards in perfect formation (like soldiers) - mimicking old, cheap wall insulation - would move and shift with each scene. When the boards were suspended, shadows would form on the ground, contrasting with the bright light shining directly from above, to create invisible borders.
The shapes on the uneven fabric of the boards resembled terrible, distorted faces, as if screaming in pain, no longer able to contain themselves. Whether this was an artistic choice or just my own interpretation I don't know, either way the effect was somewhat eerie. The shadows imitated prison bars, an image that sums up the play quite well: we'd wondered into Woyzeck's mental prison, made even worse by the physical prison of his life as a poor soldier.

As the play goes on the boards begin to fall apart: first by Woyzeck's direct physical actions, then suddenly rupturing in places to reveal blood and guts, struggling to remain contained in the small space. This again refers to the gruesome nature of War, as well as the inside of Woyzeck's mind, as though the boards were the border, between his rational and confusing thoughts, between reason and insanity: the overwhelming thoughts pushing against his skull, wanting to escape.

The audience seems to be drawn more and more into the character's mind with every scene. The set becomes bigger, more spacious, each new revelation breaking down a the metaphorical wall (aka board) to reveal the true reality of Woyzeck's mind: a vast emptiness, nothing to hold on to, any coherent structure torn away.

As for the acting: the characters were well established from the offset, the dialogue felt natural, believable. It was realistic. Some scenes were quite long, and not a huge amount happens in the play. The emphasis is placed on human interactions and the mind more than anything else: whether that be sexual, romantic or professional relationships - and how these experiences effect behavior and thinking.

The play isn't joyful, it doesn't leave you feeling ecstatic: it leaves you a little mentally drained and slightly shaken. I don't think one person wasn't shocked by the ending. But it was enjoyable: brilliant performances, a compelling story and amazing art direction.

As a Performing Arts graduate I definitely enjoyed it and would see it again: but I don't think it's for everyone. As long as you understand it's more of a reflective, personal play I think you'll like it. Either way you're guaranteed a good experience: the performances were brilliant.

Holly x


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