Friday, November 29, 2013

'Woyzeck' at the Omnibus Clapham, 28th November 2013

When you step through the doors of the Omnibus Clapham you walk into the world of Woyzeck.  The floor is covered in peaty wood chips, the air misty with smoke and the walls covered in ancient looking knick-knacks and gnarled wooden furniture. Bisecting the space is a row of carved stone support columns, giving the room a subterranean, exploratory tinge.  As you pick your way gently to your seats you pass two men; one furiously whittling a stake and the other collapsed against a pillar.  Against this the neat blue fabric of the theatre seats are utterly incongruous and so the audience becomes an interloper in this mad world.

Woyzeck is a play by Georg Büchner, written in 1836 and left tantalisingly incomplete at his premature death at age 23 of typhus.  Büchner's early death was unfortunate for him but fortunate for Woyzeck: the play gains from its imposed abrupt ending, allowing generations of dramatists to apply their own interpretations to the material  Though it's held in high regard now, the play wasn't performed for 66 years after the death of the playwright, but over the 20th century became one of the most influential plays in German theatre.  Prior to this, my only proper exposure to Woyzeck was the excellent 1979 film adaptation by Werner Herzog starring Klaus Kinski, so I was interested in seeing how the play worked as traditional theatre.

Woyzeck (Liam Smith)
Plotwise things are blessedly uncomplicated; we see the story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a 40 year old soldier living in Leipzig.  He lives with his unwed partner Marie, with whom he has a young child  considered a bastard and not blessed by the church. To earn a few extra crumbs, Woyzeck does odd jobs for a military captain and is used as a test subject by a doctor, who forces Woyzeck to subsist entirely on a diet of peas. This situation, coupled with Woyzeck's latent mental problems, causes him to begin to have a hallucinatory breakdown, experiencing terrifying apocalyptic visions.  Freaked out by her partner's odd behaviour, Marie begins an affair with a studly and buff drum major.  Driven mad with jealousy Woyzeck spirals further into madness, culminating in his stabbing Marie to death.  The play ends on an ambiguous note, with Woyzeck possibly committing suicide by drowning himself.

The Omnibus Clapham's production runs at a lean 75 minutes without an interval, and given the straightforward nature of the plot you might wonder just how complex Woyzeck can really be.  But almost every minute of Büchner's play is stuffed full of philosophical pondering about combative relationships: man v God, man v animal, class v class, man v woman, intelligence v stupidity and many more.  Woyzeck, put-upon and mistreated by all, becomes the ground on which these battles are fought, a man tugged and yanked this way and that by society until he can take no more.

Ruth Roger's puppet is hells freaky.
This production has a pleasingly comedic, warped pantomime sensibility running right through it.  Woyzeck's disturbing, violent delusions of a world scorched clean by fire  feel understandable when confronted with the hellish reality of his everyday existence.  His world is populated by demonic caricatures; the doctor experimenting on him might have stepped out of A Clockwork Orange, a fairground barker is nightmarishly intense and there are striking scenes involving creepily realistic puppet animals that look inspired by the living-dead motion of creatures in a Jan Švankmajer film.

This division between man and animal is frequently highlighted by director Robyn Winfield-Smith.  As the barker yells orders, the three puppeteers bring the beast to creepily realistic life, force him to stand to attention like a soldier and beg for money. This beast of burden is Woyzeck, the picture of a man debased and shat on by all sides. Liam Smith as Woyzeck does an outstanding job of creating a man that we never quite sympathise with, but even in the depths of his madness we still pity him and wish his life was better.  The performance is shot through with nervy tension - as he crawls on all fours you can't help but notice the way the tendons in his neck strain to breaking point; the eyes goggling out of his head combining anger, betrayal and the kind of scared confusion you'd see in the eyes of a punished dog that can't work out what it's done wrong.
David Rubin
The rest of the (surprisingly large) cast acquit themselves similarly well, though a highlight is David Rubin's appearance as a creepy merchant selling Woyzeck the knife to murder his wife.  The lighting perfectly picks out the flashes in his eyes as he takes a sick pleasure in providing a murder weapon.  This one scene struck me as particularly well conceived, the action blocked so that the characters never quite meet each other, the knife appearing in Woyzeck's hand as if was there all along - which in a way it was.

The theatrical space within the Omnibus Clapham works wonders in immersing you in this world, the smells, sensations and spooky ambient soundtrack bringing to mind Punchdrunk Theatre's current production of The Drowned Man.  It's only now that I realise that The Drowned Man is also a adaptation of Woyzeck - perhaps there's some psychic atmosphere that comes packaged the play: Büchner's premature death supernaturally leaching through the centuries, tinging the action with intangible sensations of oncoming apocalypse.

Or maybe it's just a sign of two concurrent productions that excel in their own ways.   Who can say? This production succeeds as intellectual meat, as technically excellent theatre and, perhaps most importantly, as entertainment.  The mordant humour suffusing the performances giving rise to some very twisted giggles in the audience and the exaggerated physicality of the performances keeping everything tight and fast-paced.  A great example of what you can do with 75 minutes and a talented, imaginative company.

Woyzeck is at the Omnibus Clapham until 7 December.  Tickets available here.

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