Secret Theatre: Show 1
Michael Coveney is lukewarm on the latest offering in Sean Holmes' mystery season at the Lyric Hammersmith
We're still waiting for Sean Holmes' "Secret Theatre" season to shake things up as he's promised. The second revelation, Show 1, turns out to be another well-known classic, stripped back to the bone and delivered with some spirit and insouciance, but far less radical than the make-over (or dress down) in Show 2 of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Admittedly there were one or two confused senior customers on the night I attended, but most of the hundred or so audience members huddled in the Lyric stalls must have twigged the play title within seconds of seeing Billy Seymour's depressed soldier running circles round the stage in a chain and harness in his grubby underwear, hurtling to his doom like a programmed hamster on a wheel.
David Harrower's adaptation of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck – what's the point of the "secret" when it's public knowledge? – starts with a parade of the human species looking miserable, then scuffing and scrambling among themselves over tin water containers. It's a drastically filleted version of a play that's already a stark fragment.
But to "get" what Harrower and Holmes have done necessitates knowing the play from the outset, thus gleaning the ironic sheen they place on casting the drum major who seduces Woyzeck's pregnant girlfriend Marie (Katherine Pearce) as a woman in a moustache and epaulettes (Charlotte Josephine), or the old man with a hurdy-gurdy as a piano-playing sloppy transvestite (Leo Bill).
The cast jump in and out of furry animal suits (Hammed Animashaun does a mean soft shoe shuffle as Woyzeck's friend, Andres), Nadia Albina usurps Büchner's circus barker as an elegantly acrobatic aerial dancer, and Marie belts out "Hey, Big Spender" like a desperate contender on The X-Factor, which is a fair enough analogy with her situation of combating economic desperation with last-ditch depravity.
Woyzeck, based on a real-life incident of a soldier murdering his wife in 1824, but not published until 1879 (Büchner died aged 23 in 1837), remains an influential text in our modern theatre; Simon Stephens, one of Secret Theatre's key participants, did a powerful new Royal Court version with Daniel Mays as a contemporary, alienated war veteran.
But I don't understand why Holmes and co haven't gone deeper into less familiarly charted territory of, say, early Brecht or the other German Expressionists; maybe later they will.
In the meantime, any adventurous theatre-goer will consider this edition an unexceptional addition to a roster of recent versions by Punchdrunk (The Drowned Man), Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, Vesturport, and Carrie Cracknell's terrific production of the Alban Berg operatic version at ENO earlier this year.