Having spent three months eating only peas, it comes as no surprise that the eponymous central character in
An opportunity to see Büchner’s fragments reassembled into an intriguing drama.
The play dates from around 1836 and is loosely based on a true story. It was left in unfinished form, as a few fragmentary papers, following the Büchner’s untimely death at the age of twenty three. With the rise of German naturalism in the theatre, these drafts attracted attention and the timeless nature of their themes appealed to audiences when they were put together to a create play in the 1870s. The universal content still rings true today and in part accounts for the ongoing fascination of this work. That the playwright failed to leave a final form has given subsequent adapters considerable freedom in placing their own mark on the material. Director Chris Gates’ adaptation of this harrowing tale adds to the collection as a bare-bones exploration of the abuse of power and the callous disregard that people can have for the poverty, suffering and mental disorders of others. Painfully portrayed through the interaction of a few people, it becomes a statement about society in general.
Franz Woyzeck is a soldier based in an isolated outpost of the army. He has a baby by Marie with whom he lives. They are not married and therefore the child remains unblessed by the Church – a source of recurrent distress to both parents. Living in poverty, Woyzeck earns extra money by performing simple tasks for the Captain and being the subject of medical experimentation for the Doctor – hence the peas! With minimal reluctance Marie succumbs to the advances of the Drum Major as a temporary escape from her depressing existence. Woyzeck faces further humiliation when he confronts his girlfriend's lover. As the hallucinations and voices in his head reach a critical point, this latest degradation leads him to embark upon a final phase of destructive activity. Robert Wallis takes centre stage in this production, doubling up as both Woyzeck and the Drum Major. With the addition of a jacket, a change of voice, demeanour and posture and a band to tie back Woyzeck’s dishevelled hair, his transformation becomes complete. Occupying both roles creates a fascinating dynamic. The two characters are the antithesis of each other and the Drum Major almost becomes an alter ego of all the things that Woyzeck might aspire to be. Yet Woyzeck is constantly reminded by the Captain, haughtily played by Isaac Finch, who also doubles as the Showman, that he is worthless and deprived of both morality and values. As the pressures bear down relentlessly on Woyzeck, Wallis gives an agonisingly tormented portrayal of this trembling, quivering wreck’s downward spiral into insanity and rage.
Other parts are played by Verity Williams as Marie and Cyril Cottrell as the Doctor. While they occupy key roles, their performances don’t match the power and authority of Wallis and Finch – an imbalance that leaves the production with peaks and troughs and varying degrees of momentum. Performed in the round, the available space can feel uncomfortably tight, barely allowing room for all the cast and the exits and entrances, although it undoubtedly ensures that there is no escaping the intense action.
This worthy adaptation will probably see further workings of Woyzeck be developed into a more rounded work. In the meantime, for aficionados of the genre, it is an opportunity to see Büchner’s fragments reassembled into an intriguing drama.