Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents WOYZECK, written by Georg Buchner, translated by Carl Richard Mueller. At the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St.

WOYZECK by Georg Buchner (1836-37) has a reputation of some standing and is more often than not, met, as a regularly performed piece in most university theatre societies. How much of this standing is academic appreciation, with hindsight, and how much of it is in the witnessing of it as engaging performance is my problem with the piece. I have never had an experience with this text that has been engrossing or given me the sense that this is a ‘masterpiece’ as some claim in the theatre. The opera by Alban Berg, under the direction of Barrie Kosky, was the nearest I have ever come to a satisfying theatrical experience of this source material by Buchner. Similarly, the other work, DANTON’S DEATH has rarely succeeded in the theatre for me, and I have only once had the opportunity of seeing the comedy, LEONICE AND LENA - which is only remembered now as an interesting addition to my knowledge of the author’s small output- an academic diversion.( By the by, the opera LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK by Shostakovich and the novel and stage versions of Jaroslav Hasek’s novel THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK are two other works, with similar resonances to WOYZECK that have always being easier for me to absorb and appreciate).

In The Oxford Dictionary of Plays – Michael Patterson about Woyzeck:

“It is one of the tragedies of world drama that one of the greatest playwrights, acknowledged by writers as diverse as Artaud and Brecht to be the father of modern theatre, died at the age of 23, leaving only DANTON’S DEATH, a comedy LEONCE and LENA and this unfinished masterpiece. WOYZECK is remarkable in many respects. Its episodic structure formed a model for the fragmentary, kaleidoscopic depiction of reality beloved of modernist theatre. Its terse, highly charged poetic language showed how effective minimal dialogue can be. Above all focusing a tragedy on a simple working-class figure opened up the possibility, especially for naturalist drama later in the century, of showing that ordinary people could be something more than comic characters. The play lay for decades as a neglected fragment, and even its title was initially misread as WOZZECK ( as in the Alban Berg’s opera of 1925). It is uncertain how Buchner intended to order the scenes and to end the play, whether with Woyzeck’s suicide (as in the opera) or with his trial (as in the historical case on which the play is based).”

All this is great historical referencing, and all probably true, but as it was left, how theatrically, as a living organism in the theatre space with an audience, is it viable?

Woyzeck is a man in poverty in every sense of application. He is a soldier seconded to his Captain, who physically and mentally abuses him in the course of his duties. To earn extra money Woyzeck has volunteered to act as a guinea pig for scientific experiments by an obsessive Doctor – his body becomes an abused container, he eats only peas for three months! He begins to suffer from hearing ‘voices’. He needs the extra money to support his common law wife, Marie, and child. Marie finds solace in her circumstances with other men and Woyzeck observes her betrayal with the Drum Major whom he confronts and, subsequently, is beaten mercilessly. Woyzeck takes Marie into the forest and brutally murders/daggers her and returns to the tavern of the town and joins in an ecstatic dance where he is questioned about the blood on his body.

“What is man?” “The world is out of order” Two phrases that sit with me from this production of the text.

This production by Netta Yashchin is handsome indeed. David Fleischer, the designer for both set and costumes, has cleaned the theatre space with a freshly painted black back wall and an attractive patterned floor design held to the floor with gleaming and symmetric arrangements of metal studs. It is beautifully lit (Ross Graham) both atmospherically and aesthetically in a permanent softening haze effect for the many changes of scene. The props are minimal, army metal ration cans, a chair and bottles. The costumes are a thoughtful and ‘elegant’ contemporary ‘fashionista’ collection that establish the characters in this post- modern construct of the world of the play. It is comfortable and richly articulated. Maybe erring too much in the sense of controlled art direction, for the play to really come into any kind of affront – this is a pleasant world to be in – it is the intent?

Ms Yashchin has employed a composer (Tom Hogan) and with a live band (Alexandra Spence, clarinet; Grant Arthur, banjo; Marcus Whale, saxophone) explicates a very evocative score, accompanied by recorded sound effects, as well. The score interpolates contemporary pop and folk songs, fittingly and often humorously. Accompanying this live music are several dance performers (Rory Nagle-Runciman, Jessica Joseph-McDermott) who add “movement, gesture and multilayered metaphor” which is the “style and language of this work”. (Production?) The dancers are sinuous and ‘sexy’ in their tasks. Ms Yashchin has, apparently, deliberately chosen very handsome and attractive actors and the visual aesthetics, are both post-modern and surreal in their affect- for instance, a procession of actors in black, full floor length tulle netting over other diversely costumed figures, parade around the space with oranges in hands being squeezed and proffered to the audience, and book end the production!? The glossy magazine look of the production is enhanced with the ‘sex’ of the performers and the fission of blood dripping, pouring, and later, pooling during the performance.

The ensemble cast is very engaging not only in their physical diversity but also with their textual skills. Michael Piggott (Woyzeck), Zahra Newman (Marie), Fayssal Bazzi lead the ensemble well. The early sequences of this production arrested my attention and I felt at last that here was a production of WOYZECK that might standout from my usual unattached engagement with this play. However, in this eighty-minute production – it did get to feel much longer - somewhere about the second Doctors sequence, the performing lost its impetus.

Acting, story telling, can be reduced, sometimes, in definition, to the need for the actors to passionately pursue their objectives. In this kind of fragmented short scene structure the necessity for the actors to be clear about what the audience must absorb and the means to achieve that in each compartmentalised time zone - scene, is imperative. Tell us what is happening, clearly, with the gathering stakes of an accumulative linear yarn. Instead, in this production – initially clear and communicative energies dwindled into presenting visual images of what came to be droned and static art installations. The pictures were pretty, but the dramatic imperative of a traumatised man, being driven by terrifying circumstances, to what logically appear to be an inevitable set of tragic actions became comatosed, becalmed. It all seemed to be, latterly, in contrast to the first half of this production, a series of visual gems necklaced on a string that had no purposed function other than the aesthetics. For example, when we came to the ’dance of the bloodied hands and arms’ at the tavern (it reminded me of the Vampire disco scene in the beginning of BLADE with Wesley Snipes-1998) it seemed to be an imposed artistic picture that did not fluidly come from the preceding scenes or actions, neither visually or musically. It seemed an imposed stylistic choice overriding the narrative cohesion, in how to get to it and use it. Somewhere in this production the inner pacing and tempo controls got lost – and with it, me, as an attentive audience member. Maybe, the production just ran out of technical rehearsal time? One began to feel, here was a directorial vision that began in its obsession to the images of the design production, to conceal, rather than continue to reveal the play and its societal critique for this 2010 audience.

What began enthrallingly with the dance in the theatre foyer and invitation to witness the tale of Woyzeck, the ordinary soldier, became dull and wearing. Buchner’s WOYZECK , again, in my experience, simply an academic, dramaturgical, precocious wonder. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the visual voice of Ms Yashchin is astonishing but her story telling skills are not yet equal. What with a week into the production, some attention could have made adjustments if they were thought necessary.

Maybe, there was no need felt. I, sadly, beg to differ. It plays until the 29th of August.


James Waites said...

Spot on review Kevin...

Anonymous said...

Intriguing review. I definately agree that this production of Woyzeck does have a breathtaking visual aesthetic, however at times, consistency is lost to an overbearing attempt to grapple with the meaning of the text.

I recall three dancers, not two - Rachel Weiner.

And Fayssal Bazzi's character was Andres, was it not?

Anonymous said...

Yes Rachel Weiner is the third dancer, and I think it is "Andreas" played by Fayssal Bazzi.

And yes, powerful aesthetic, a shame the engagement in the story did not last throughout the whole production.

John said...

People were milling about the foyer . The larger crowd had disappeared into Purgatory with Gwen. Our show wasn't due to start for fifteen minutes or so.
Suddenly there were dancers in our midst. A young man and a young woman weaving between the patrons in sensuous , muscular movements and finding a central performing area. We gathered around them , intrigued and excited. Three musicians took up positions near the box office. The dancers elicited gasps as they swooped and stretched and rolled on the cold floor. What was happening? Would the dancers become the protagonists of the drama? Would WOYZECK be enacted here ,where we only ever meet to greet? I looked around me. Eyes were wide , faces shining.
And then we were being beckoned by these fantastic figures into the downstairs Theatre.
What ensued constituted a let down of depressing proportions. The tale of the wretched prole was delivered in an incoherent melange of styles that denied any chance of sympathetic engagement.There is a phrase in your review , Kevin , that leaped off the screen : "imposed stylistic choices". What lingers in the memory from this production is the variety of accents ; the sudden intrusion of disco choruses; the squirting of fake blood from a barbecue sauce bottle ; miked sound from one actor only ; a song that seems to have floated in from Puerto Rico ; a dance that has roots in "Chicago"; the spectacle of a big man arrayed in a black skirt - humungous fake boobs drooping down to his belly as he intones a grave Hebraic song. Such spectacle couldn't make up for the absence of a mounting drama . Occasionally there would be a showy solo 'bit' , but rarely dramatic engagement - one actor with going head to head with another.
Some of the actors and dancers make impassioned contributions , and on the night I saw the show , enthusiastic applause rang out across the room as they took their bows.
I left with no more understanding of the reputation of this play than on the only other occasion when I have seen it - a production at the Wayside Chapel Theatre in the mid 80s.

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, your usual lucid and interesting review. I did not know the play at all before (and perhaps nt after either?!) and did not realise its history in the theatrical canon. On researching the net I found out that there was a production in early 2009 in Melbourne with music by Nick Cave and with "rock star" Tim Rogers in it. Obviously this current production was not so "large", given the space restrictions of the Downstairs space - but they did do a fantastic job with lighting and so on to make that space appear as large as I have ever seen it so to speak. There is also a huge cast, by Downstairs standards anyway. Overall I found it an enjoyable experience -- certainly much more so than the dreadful infliction of Measure for Measure recently on us in the Upstairs Theatre. And Downstairs tix are the best bargain in Sydney so you can never feel too "robbed". as a previous poster has noted, the initial prancing/dancing in the foyer was a bit of a w*nk and has little to do with what follows - perhaps a Brechtian device or summat?