"Reaps rewards from intense effort"
by Maddy Ryle for remotegoat on 11/02/10

This was the first time I'd seen Woyzeck on stage or screen, and I knew nothing about the play, which was written by Georg Buchner in 1836. Brecht definitely comes to mind in terms of both the themes of the play (lower class dehumanisation) and the fragmentary and alienating style of language and interaction between the characters - although the decision may have been deliberately taken to draw on Brechtian technique for this production.

Buchner died early and never finished his play, so I'm not sure whose version Giant Olive have worked with here, but they've done a great job of taking ownership of the material and spurring each other on to some very good acting performances.

Things started a little haltingly, with a late start, a long, delaying silence before the cast appeared on stage, and the near-crushing by one of the principals as he maneuvered a piece of the set before the first scene had got going. Once the dialogue had started though, and the tension spread between the actors, these hiccups were easily forgotten.

The set itself is worth mentioning; a series of upended wooden slated pallets on wheels that could be variously rearranged to form a prison, double doors, private rooms, a stage, an inn…after a while it seemed very appropriate that the cast had to quite physically heft about these heavy but unfixed walls as spaces were created and recreated for the presentation of human cruelty and tragedy. The thoughtful lighting and darkly beautiful stringed refrain which accompanied these set changes worked extremely well.

Buchner based his story loosely on some 'real-life' events in which a wigmaker murdered his live-in lover. He uses this plot to underlay an allegorical and violent commentary on a denatured society in which Woyzeck, the demobbed soldier and odd-jobs man who is also instinctive poet and visionary, is psychologically destroyed by the unfeeling bourgeois morality of the 'Captain', the 'Doctor', the 'Drum Major' (they have no other names). We are in a small town scenario; Woyzeck has fathered an illegitimate child with the sensuous and streetwise Marie, a woman forced by poverty into prostitution. Oppressed by the Captain's moralising and the bizarre and humiliating experiments which the Doctor subjects him to (for which he was relieved of his soldierly duties and can earn a couple of quid for his destitute child's upkeep), Woyzeck loses his wits and loses Marie to the Drum Major. The outcome of all this is not cheerful, and neither Woyzeck nor Marie will survive the play; what happens to the child is speculative.

Tom O'Neill gives a pitch-perfect performance as the unbalanced Woyzeck, full of threat, irony, and abjection by turns. Jennifer Oliver as the spunky Marie is likewise excellent. Indeed, something powerful seemed to happen for the entire cast; you felt the mental strain of their drive to do the play justice and the commitment paid off. That's not to say there weren't some slack moments, bordering once or twice on confusion, but the overall effect was very much the Brechtian verfremdung: here, step outside your society and look at it coldly - see what it does to people?

Woyzeck is a demanding play for both players and audience, and Alan Marni and his cast should be applauded as they have reaped rewards for both with their interpretation.

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