Friday, January 8, 2016

Woyzeck at Sydney Festival

Woyzeck adapted from the play by Georg Büchner: created by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Robert Wilson; songs and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. 

Thalia Theater Hamburg directed by Jette Steckel; text adapted by Ann-Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens; stage design by Florian Lösche; musical director Laurenz Wannemacher (after Gerd Bessler, d. 14 June 2011); costumes by Pauline Hüners; lighting by Paulus Vogt; sound by Rewert Lindeburg and Gerd Mauff; dramaturg – Susanne Meister.

Sydney Festival at Carriageworks, Sydney, Bay 17 January 7-26, 2016.

Bernd Grawert (Tambourmajor, Woyzeck’s army drum major and seducer of Marie);
Julian Greis (Karl, an Idiot);
Franziska Hartmann (Marie, wife of Woyzeck);
Philipp Hochmair (Hauptmann, Woyzeck’s army captain);
Felix Knopp (Woyzeck, basic infantry soldier);
Jörg Pohl (Andres, soldier friend of Woyzeck);
Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Margreth, storyteller);
Tilo Werner (Doctor, psychologist ‘treating’ Woyzeck)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 7

Terrifyingly, disturbingly sad, is this version of the play that I am told is a necessary study at matriculation level in German schools.  Written in 1836, it is a classic ahead of its time as a drama of social criticism and as a forerunner of expressionist theatre.

I see this production as taking up the view that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" (the famous opening sentence of the novel The Go-Between by L P Hartley.)  This Woyzeck is more than a translation of Büchner’s original script: it is a creative highly imaginative re-interpretation in a modern theatrical language.

It becomes the story of the child left behind by the deaths of its parents, Woyzeck and Marie – a story of mental mayhem and murder in which the perpetrator is as much a victim as the woman he kills.  The awful question the play begs for an answer is, Who can you blame?

The terror this production makes you feel is that there is no answer, but there is a reason.  The truth is that none of us have absolute control over our lives, but unless we can believe we are in control, we fall apart emotionally and lash out violently even against the ones we love. 

To present a naturalistic performance of characters interacting would not transport an audience out of ourselves.  Tom Wait’s music and especially Jette Steckel’s directing in Florian Lösche’s stage design shifts our perception.  Terrifying it may be, but theatrically stunning it certainly is.  This production of Woyzeck is a major work which should not be missed.  It is a mark of maturity of the Sydney Festival to bring us theatre of such quality from “a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

So how did they do it?  At the rear of the stage is a band of six musicians who produce any type of music from symphonic to an amusing clown trumpeter, but mostly concentrating on folk and jazz and a lot that sounds almost like Kurt Weill – as a reference I guess to the main period of development of expressionism in Germany influenced by Erwin Piscator’s 1928 staging of the The Good Soldier Schweik adapted from the unfinished Czech novel by Jaroslav Hasek, a play which has always seemed to me to be the most immediate follow-on, a century later, from Woyzeck.

Now it’s almost another century, and the music and songs underpin the emotions and the messages set up by Büchner at a level of audience engagement a step above the platform where we watched Brecht, purposefully ‘alienated’.

The main stage is bare, but suspended above, at first out of sight, is a horizontal rectangular frame which when lowered covers a large proportion of the stage area.  Strung on the frame is a net of substantial cables forming squares, which you can see in the program cover photo above.  Silent motors control the suspension cables so that the net can be tilted at any angle from horizontal to vertical by lifting or lowering the front or rear edge. 

Actors, as you can see if you look closely at the photo, can be hooked onto the net with harnesses, and can be suspended away from or underneath the net, or without a harness can walk or climb across or up and down the net, or go through the square holes to emerge forward or ‘hide’ behind the vertical or sloping net; or in the final scene, have the horizontal net lowered over them to reveal them standing on the stage floor as if trapped and unable to travel across the acting space.

The net, perhaps the ‘web of life’, is a great example of an essentially simple device with infinite symbolic possibilities.  Just one example was when Marie sits with the doll representing her child, after her seduction by the drum major and knowing that her husband is now uncontrollable.  Woyzeck is not there, but could appear at any moment.  Is she safe as the net lowers to just above her?  Does it protect her like a roof from the exigencies of life, or is she trapped as if walled in waiting for him in abject fear?

Light and shadow, as in so much expressionist stage and film work, make us identify with the situations the characters are in, emphasised by sound ‘concrète’ as well music and voice, and the result is total concentration for nearly two hours.

Susanne Meister writes in her program note: ‘...Lösche enables stunning images of people trying to hold on to something, losing their equilibrium and not being safe in a changing, unstable world....A Woyzeck of today.’  The feeling is terrifying, it is disturbing – and so sad.

Photos by Jamie Williams

Felix Knopp as Woyzeck

Tilo Werner as Doctor; Felix Knopp as Woyzeck

Felix Knopp as Woyzeck; Jörg Pohl as Andres

Franziska Hartmann as Marie; Bernd Grawert as Tambourmajor

Bernd Grawert as Tambourmajor; Franziska Hartmann as Marie

Julian Greis as The Idiot; Franziska Hartmann as Marie

Marie, Andres, Woyzeck and The Idiot

Andres, Tambourmajor, Marie, Woyzeck and The Idiot

Marie holding child; The Idiot above

Marie with The Idiot holding her child

Woyzeck lowers the murdered Marie
He then lowers himself to join her in death

For background info on the original play, see

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