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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Woyzeck
Old Vic Theatre  Summer 2017

This is a particularly free adaptation of an incomplete and fragmented 200-year-old manuscript that is particularly unsuccessful in imposing much resonance or even coherence on it. It serves as a vehicle for a currently popular movie actor, but not much more. 

Georg Buchner's play, left unfinished at his death in 1837, is a collection of disconnected scenes, and every translation and adaptation has involved choosing an order for the scenes and inventing the linking material, so no two have been very much alike. 

This version's adaptor, Jack Thorne, has essentially rewritten the source material entirely, updating the setting, altering and combining characters, and attempting to bring out more clearly and evocatively the meanings he sees in Buchner's text. 

The changes Thorne makes, and the degree to which they are true or false to Buchner's vision, are of interest only to literary scholars. What matters is the play before us, and it doesn't work. 

Thorne makes Woyzeck a British soldier in Germany in the 1970s, actually a rather safe and soft posting. (Much is made in programme notes of the fact that such soldiers were regularly rotated to more dangerous service in Northern Ireland, though there is very little about that in the play, except perhaps to explain Woyzeck's Irish girlfriend.) 

With the girlfriend and their baby daughter in tow, Woyzeck is in constant financial difficulties, forced to house them in a tiny flat over an abattoir. (Much is made of that symbol, and of the fact that everything smells of meat, but the symbol – assuming that's what it is – has no resonance beyond general unpleasantness.) 

Woyzeck is haunted by fragmented memories of his mother, a whore who made him watch her at work, and that lingering trauma makes him sometimes confuse his baby girl with his own baby self, and his girlfriend with his mother. 

To top things off, he tries to earn some extra cash by taking part in a drug trial that seriously messes with his mind. 

So, haunted by confused and sexually-charged memories of his childhood, addled by drugs and pressured by finances, Woyzeck tries to hang on to one thought that can give his life meaning, that he is needed by his girlfriend and baby and is meeting that need with love. But of course being there for them and providing for them is what he is particularly failing at. 

There are also a commanding officer of ambiguous sexuality, the officer's wife who unambiguously cuckolds him with hunky soldiers including Woyzeck's closest friend, the friend whose loyalty to Woyzeck is minimal, and the unreconstructed Nazi doctor running the drug experiment. 

The single biggest problem with Jack Thorne's version of the play is that absolutely everything about his Woyzeck is so specific, particular and bizarre that there are no generalisations to be drawn from it, no insight into the human condition to receive from it. 

This is, at various moments, a play about the traumatised son of a whore or about the dangers of insufficiently monitored drug trials or about the low pay of soldiers in Germany forty years ago, or about these and other equally unrelatable-to topics in various combinations. 

But it is all so specific and grotesque that it never rises above the anecdotal. This Woyzeck's story has too little to tell us and too little for us to relate to. 

Actor John Boyega, known to the summer's tourists from the most recent Star Wars episode, gives a convincing portrayal of a man who doesn't know what the hell is going on. 

In considerably simpler roles, Sarah Greene (girlfriend), Ben Batt (buddy), Steffan Rhodri (officer), Nancy Carroll (his wife) and Darrell D'Silva (scientist) create more coherent if sometimes single-dimensional characterisations. 

Director Joe Murphy keeps too much on the same near-hysterical note for enough of it to involve us, carry much meaning, or matter.

Gerald Berkowitz

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