Büchner's unfinished play has been reimagined by Sebastian Rex for the Acting Like Mad theatre company. The original complex but fragmented piece is reduced to the interplay of four archetypal characters through which Rex attempts an exploration of the torment, victimisation and exploitation of the poor.
The Woyzeck (Edward Evans) earns coins to pay for his Lover (Elisa King) and illegitimate child by offering his body for experimentation by the Oppressor (Jamie Laird). Unable to rationalise what is happening to him, and tormented by a series of hallucinations, the Woyzeck walks straight towards his ultimate downfall, a murder that is foreshadowed from the very beginning.
Laird is strong as the Machiavellian villain who purposefully humiliates his subject through meaningless experiments and the deliberate seduction of his lover, and this pointed persecution of the Woyzeck is emphasised by the dagger-like angles repeated through the set and costumes. Haunting music underscores the piece and the lighting, often glinting off the guillotine hanging above, creates a sense of tension and certain doom.
There is a meaningful story here, about the debasement and powerlessness of the poor and working classes, but it is often lost in a maze of unwieldy dialogue and disjointed scenes. The distillation of the piece means that the social and moral messages of the original have been reduced to a series of trite aphorisms that tell rather than show, leaving the audience little space to deduce and infer. The short, abrupt scenes give the piece a presentational quality which prevents it from really hitting home.
The physical work is superb, from Evans’ impersonations of animals to the balletic sex scene between the Lover and the Oppressor, but the sense of freedom that accompanies these moments is not replicated throughout. The original play was revolutionary and challenging, and although this new production raises some interesting ideas, it falls short of fulfilling its obvious potential as a study of power and free will.