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Review: Woyzeck (Old Vic Theatre)

John Boyega stars in Jack Thorne's version of Buchner's classic

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The John Boyega Star Wars fans were out in force to see the BAFTA-winning actor return to the stage at the Old Vic. And all credit to him for taking them on a journey to another galaxy far, far away because there couldn't be a character further removed from the genial Finn than the tortured soldier Woyzeck.

The character and the play are the creation of Georg Büchner, the revolutionary German playwright, who left fragments of the drama unfinished at the time of his death from typhus in 1837 at the early age of 23. In this new adaptation, Jack Thorne has radically shaped and altered Büchner's original, while keeping its overwhelming bleakness and its sense of a protagonist who never understands his own life or his own tragedy.

He's updated the action to Berlin in the 1980s, when the British army is guarding the West from Russian invasion, at once bored and on high alert. Here Frank Woyzeck is trying to forge a life with his mistress Marie and their child. He needs to be needed; he wants to save her. But conditions are against them. They live above an abattoir, they're broke, and Woyzeck is haunted by a past of neglect and crushed by a present of oppression, bossed by the captain he serves and a doctor whose dangerous experiments he signs up for. "We're too desperate to do anything but live our lives desperately," says Marie.

In its bleak rush from misery to despair, it is a play that's easier to admire than to love. But Thorne introduces shafts of humour amidst the gloom, and by giving Woyzeck a back story where his mother, accompanied by his younger self, stalks the action like an unloving wraith, he has humanised the drama. He has also, helpfully, turned Marie into a real character that we care about rather than an embodiment of perfidious womankind. Her fate matters.

The production, directed by Joe Murphy, has a dark clarity. Tom Scutt has provided a set of padded moving panels that float in from above and from the sides. When they are punched or damaged, bloody entrails are shown beneath; by the close, they have vanished, leaving Woyzeck and his demons alone in a vast, disorientating space, with deep shadows created by Neil Austin's lighting and a sense of doom conjured by Isobel Waller- Bridge's threatening music.

Boyega owns that space. He has enormous command and charisma. I'd have liked him to be slightly stiller as madness descends in the second act, but there is no doubting his power, his intensity or the devastating way that he conveys both a terrified vulnerability and a ferocious, broiling violence as he desperately tries to comprehend what is happening to him.

He is surrounded by terrific performances. As Marie, Sarah Greene shows a natural compassion that curdles into terror as she tries to escape her lover's clutches; as Andrews, Ben Batt displays the uncomplicated attitudes that Woyzeck lacks, while Steffan Rhodri as Captain Thompson revels in an uncaring eccentricity that makes him regard all his soldiers as sub-normal. Nancy Carroll is compelling both as his haughty wife, all clipped vowels and fake compassion – and also as the figure of Woyzeck's mother. The scene where, by dint of changing her voice, she embodies both figures at once is even more chilling than the one where she morphs into Marie, with the help of the illusionist Ben Hart.

The play is unrelentingly nihilistic but in such hands its descent into darkness is completely absorbing.

Woyzeck runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 24 June.