Pros: Like CS Lewis’ Narnia or Shakespeare’s forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the set design in Woyzeck feels fantastical, and is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in years.
Cons: The fragmented structure felt unsettling and disruptive.
Watching Woyzeck I felt unsure: do I like this, do I dislike this, and do I even understand this? The fragmented narrative and disconnection between scenes felt unfamiliar. A seasoned West-End theatregoer – and reader of the usual dramatic suspects – I am habituated to classical theatre and structure; therefore the absence of a completely linear plotline felt disruptive. “Disruption is good”, I hear you say! I shall attempt to explore whether this was true in this case or not. However, I can say for certain the original playwright Büchner was an innovator. This is something different.
The protagonist Woyzeck is a soldier (soldier-barber in fact) living in relative penury with his mistress and son. Earning money where he can and however he can, Woyzeck lives a life devoid of the comfort and self-certainty afforded to the gentlemen class. The more wealthy figures treat him like an animal, and a local Doctor engages him in a study wherein he eats nothing put peas for several months (If you’re wondering I can’t confirm whether they were frozen or fresh). The disjointed structure of the play compounds this sense of separation between the different stratas of society, and also between Woyzeck and the audience. Woyzeck is apart from the other characters in both mind and body (his mistress cannot bear his touch), and his strange visions and imaginings only make him more of an outsider. In short he comes across as a very odd chap. It is maybe for this reason that I came away feeling unsure about my response to the play.
The queer sensations I felt were heightened by the atmospheric set design, which was utterly brilliant and easily the highlight of the production. The Omnibus Clapham is a gorgeous building in itself, but walking into the auditorium felt like walking into a different world, completely foreign to the Victorian exterior. The floor was carpeted like a forest, and smoke added to the simplistic rural feel. Backstage and frontstage were separated by marvellous roman-style arches, and these lent themselves to effective staging. This doorway structure also encouraged a sense of the hidden, of secrecy, and ever more so aptly of discovery.
The set was put to particular good use when Woyzeck and his family sat as spectators to travelling entertainers (I don’t know why I assume they were travelling. There was lots of movement so they were literally travelling across the stage). The puppetry was impressive, as was the primary entertainer, a man completely immersed in his character who held the audience’s attention with the physical and verbal authority of a charismatic circus ringleader.
Another character that really entertained was Woyzeck’s army Commander, who prattled and patronised hilariously whilst Woyzeck shaved his beard. The Doctor was likewise amusingly eccentric, and in one absurdly comic moment threw a cat (my favourite of the lifelike puppets) at Woyzeck’s face. Though the action in itself was funny, the belittling and dehumanisation of Woyzeck was disturbing, and further contributed to the overall unsettling tone of the play.
Nevertheless, despite the poor treatment he received from the men and women around him, I never felt pity for Woyzeck; any chance of empathy was disrupted by the way the odd collection of scenes had been put together. Therefore the disruption was certainly disrupting, but it prevented my feeling anything for the main character: he was just too odd, it was all too odd. In that sense then I suppose Woyzeck’s dehumanisation is complete. Is this play outsmarting me? Am I missing something?
This production was really interesting to see, and contained a lot of well-done dramatic elements; the music and set being the best. However, the mishmash of different narrative strands, and their fragmented structure, made for an odd overall effect. I didn’t know how I felt about anything or anyone and I still don’t know now. Don’t worry Woyzeck, it’s me, not you.
Author: Georg Büchner
Translator: Michael Ewans
Director: Robyn Winfield-Smith
Box Office: 020 7498 4699
Booking Link: www.omnibus-clapham.org
Booking Until: 7th December 2013