Jack Thorne’s Woyzeck, Old Vic

In Germany, where I grew up, we love Büchner. Our Booker Prize equivalent is called Georg Büchner Prize, and seen as a clear early indicator of the next German speaker who will win the Nobel Prize in literature. This young playwright, novelist, poet, physician, revolutionary, founder of a secret society, university lecturer, and natural scientist died at the age of 23 of typhoid fever in 1837, before being able to finish Woyzeck. His last and most famous work merely exists in fragments, was published only 40 years later and first performed in 1913, just to become the most influential and most performed play in the German language.

(c) Manuel Harlan

All photos (c) Manuel Harlan, except Old Vic building front and actors bowing to audience.

Heavily influenced by Shakespeare, Büchner was decades ahead of his time with his writing style using short sentences and simple, at times colloquial language, and with Woyzeck being the first major play in German language featuring exclusively working class characters.

The play is about the dehumanizing effect of military life on a young man, about jealousy, and murder. The main character is said to be loosely based on Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker turned soldier, who in 1821 killed his old lady in a fit of jealousy and was later publicly beheaded. On a deeper level, the play is about poverty. Woyzeck is seen as being of low morals by those around him of higher status, simply because he is poor.

The stage set is very simple, with wall fragments being moved around. The way the pieces move geometrically aligned and the use of colourful lights works well. On one or two occasions you feel like you’ve accidentally stumbled into a Pink Floyd video.

(c) Manuel Harlan (c) Manuel Harlan

25-year old Peckham boy John Adedayo B. Adegboyega (professionally known as John Boyega) of Attack the Block fame (forget geeky Star Wars, Attack the Block is dope) has amazing stage presence and you can only admire the aplomb with which he renders his performance.

Some have criticised Jack Thorne’s production of being too distant from the initial work by Büchner, but we’d tend to agree with Tim Bano of thestage.co.uk who writes “Is something that’s had all of its parts removed and replaced still the same object? It’s a question begged by Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Georg Buchner’s fragmentary – and unfinished – 1836 play. Gutted, given structure, relocated and updated, is Thorne’s play still Woyzeck?”

(c) Manuel Harlan (c) Manuel Harlan

“Well, yes and no. The essential structure is there and some scenes remain intact, but this is essentially a completely new play, and a ferocious one too, that grows exponentially in power as it progresses. It’s the play that Woyzeck would have been, needs to be, if written in 2017.”

“Gone is Woyzeck’s philosophising and the often ponderous language that infects English translations. Instead, Thorne brings his pitch-perfect naturalistic dialogue to bear on a work that becomes about class, masculinity and mental health.”

Ends 24 June 2017. Don’t miss this gem.

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