German dramatist Georg Büchner was only 23 when he wrote Woyzeck, a surprisingly tender age for such a mature perspective on social inequality, the baseness of human nature and obsessive love. Had typhoid fever not killed him the same year, one can only imagine the epic impact he might have had on world theatre. Still, as legacies go, the masterpiece he left behind takes some beating.
Whether or not you accept the opinion, put forth by many experts, that Woyzeck was the first truly ‘modern’ play, there’s no quibbling with the fact that it was well ahead of its time. (It wasn’t performed until the 20th century when it also provided the basis for Alban Berg’s opera.) Uncompleted at the time of Büchner’s death, the tragedy consists of a series of short, disjointed scenes, the intended order of which remains unclear.
It’s understandable then why theatre practitioners are so entranced by Büchner’s brave and ever-malleable script which, in this new version sensitively adapted and directed by Daniel Kramer, feels all the more modern and urgent.
Woyzeck is a lowly soldier, all-round servant to the condescending captain (who orders him not to run) and guinea pig to the unethical doctor (who restricts him to a diet of nothing but peas). His only joy comes care of his girlfriend Marie, with whom he has an illegitimate child. But, when he begins to suspect Marie of being unfaithful, the course is set for a bloody end.
A recent RADA graduate, Edward Hogg makes a remarkable debut playing the anti-hero of the title. His descent into madness is both riveting and heart-breaking. When confronted with his lover’s infidelity, he falls to his knees, his body racked with spasms and, lifting his eyes heavenwards, quietly begs, “please, don’t let it be true”. It’s one of many moments where you feel your own heart skip a beat in time with the character’s.
Hogg is joined by a superb ensemble, including Myriam Acharki as an exotically minxish Marie, Tim Chipping as the thuggish drum major who vies for her affections, Tony Guilfoyle as the cross-dressing doctor, and Roger Evans as Woyzeck’s friend Andres as well as a travelling show ape.
In addition to fine performances, Kramer’s production – which bizarrely but effectively paces itself against a soundtrack of Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton - comes up trumps with some breathtakingly stylistic moments, not least Ann Yee’s choreographed dances of violence and, with the help of designer Neil Irish and his ingeniously versatile set, a drowning pool and a shower of peas. Those and other fragmentary images – a clock with no hands, an alarm bell, a tricycle – will stay seared on my brain for a long time to come.