'Woyzeck': Theater Review
Returning to the London stage for the first time since 'Star Wars' amplified his fame, John Boyega is the tortured soldier on a downward spiral in Georg Buchner’s working-class tragedy, reframed in Cold War Berlin.
John Boyega's choice of role for his major stage debut is certainly bold: the lead in a dark, disturbing classic, at one of London's most prestigious theaters. When playing Woyzeck at the Old Vic, there's nowhere to hide. It's clear from the choice, the spotlight and the performance that the young Londoner is one ballsy character.
The story of a working-class soldier driven to madness by poverty, humiliation and jealousy is expected to pack an emotional punch. But in what feels like one of the most visceral stage performances of recent years, Boyega makes the man's descent palpably, frighteningly, despairingly real. It could prove to be a defining appearance, in a sterling production.
The Star Wars actor may be the main attraction, but his presence is in no way tokenistic, nor is it the only point of interest. Buchner’s short play, unfinished when he died in 1837, has been freely and persuasively adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), who relocates and expands upon Buchner’s themes of poverty, class humiliation and mental illness. Directed with a precise and powerful minimalism by Joe Murphy, the result is a fascinating, at times raunchily entertaining and increasingly harrowing experience.
Buchner’s Woyzeck is a low-ranking soldier struggling to make ends meet for himself, his girlfriend Marie and their baby. He's condescended to by his superior, takes part in a medical experiment that is destroying his health and suffers from hallucinations; in an environment of cynicism and scorn, it's easy for him to spin out of control.
By setting his interpretation in 1981, Thorne further loads the deck against the soldier. Now with the British Army, this Woyzeck has been posted from Belfast to West Berlin, from the active danger of the Troubles to the nervy apprehension of the Cold War. In Northern Ireland he went AWOL; in Berlin his fellow soldiers regard him as damaged goods.
Yet the suggestion of post-traumatic stress doesn't quite cover his mental malaise; Woyzeck is haunted by images of his younger self and the prostitute mother who abandoned him. He was already vulnerable when he entered the army; rather than saved by service, he's merely been broken further. "Are you hunted or haunted?" asks his captain (Steffan Rhodri), an upper-class heel who regards his underling as a lower life form to be examined, but not necessarily comprehended. With officers like this, who needs enemies?
The stage is mostly bare, save for the occasional prop — a bed, a chair — and giant dividers that slide or drop into view when needed. Now and again a blast of electronic music orchestrates the doomy mood. But for the most part, the focus is on the performers and, particularly, on Woyzeck's wayward perception of what's going on around him.
Surprisingly, the play opens in upbeat mode, with Woyzeck and Marie (Sarah Greene) engaging in sweet and sexy German lessons in bed. This scene is quickly followed by one of ribald guard-duty banter between Woyzeck and Andrews (Ben Batt), his only friend in the unit, as the latter relates his nocturnal adventures with the local women. With Boyega showing off the deadpan delivery we know from his reluctant Stormtrooper, and Batt energetically lewd, the scene is extremely funny.
There are other indications of the lighter man that Woyzeck yearns to be, not least a lovely scene when he takes Marie to a rooftop to see East Berlin aglow at night. But the differences and tensions between the couple are evident: she finds his love too intense, too cloying, and in answer to his question, she can only say: "You haven't made my life better. But I love our child very much." He hardly recognizes the cut.
Marie also rails against their home life, in a room above a Halal butcher's shop, where visitors complain of the smell of meat as though it's impregnated them. The smell becomes a symbol of Woyzeck's failure to provide for his family, and of the poverty that leads him towards the medical trials that will precipitate his unraveling.
It's notable that most of the play's humor revolves around sex — while act one features much talk of sex, act two opens with Andrews and the captain's wife (Nancy Carroll) going at it hammer and tongs, having borrowed the bed of Woyzeck and Marie for their adultery.
And it's no accident that, for a change, it's the man not the woman who bares all — Andrews, the self-confessed "wife-stealer," flagrantly demonstrating his virility for the returning Marie's eyes. By offering sex as comic relief, Thorne is being sly, for sex is also the poison in Woyzeck's mind, his mother's misdeeds creating the seed of his distrust in Marie.
Woyzeck is sometimes referred to as the first working-class tragedy. If that's the case, whatever societal ills the soldier may have to contend with, it's jealousy that undoes him. And here, Thorne really does improve upon Buchner, by making Marie a fully rounded character. A Belfast Catholic, she's been forced after giving birth out of wedlock to follow Woyzeck overseas, where she can only be an outsider within the British Army milieu. And whereas Buchner’s Marie is an outrageous flirt who almost certainly cheats on her partner, Thorne's Marie is not.
Thus it's the scenes between Boyega and Greene that carry the most weight and power. They constantly circle each other in a domestic dance of mismatched affections — his so-called love more a display of abject need, she petrified of it, not sharing it, with always an inkling that they are a knife-edge away from disaster. The dialogue and the performances offer kitchen-sink realism with a psychotic edge. Greene — who was nominated for Olivier and Tony Awards for her supporting role opposite Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan — is an excellent foil to Boyega, and her slender frame alongside his muscular bulk makes Marie's fate seem even more precarious.
As for Boyega, after a tentative start, the steeper Woyzeck's trajectory and the deeper into madness he goes, the more convincing the actor becomes. It's a remarkably physical performance — every sinew and muscle conveying thwarted tenderness, frustration, confusion or rage. As the soldier careers around the stage, contorted, babbling, barking, frothing at the mouth, struggling to hang onto his sanity, he's at once wretched and terrifying. By the time of his final encounter with Marie, the actor's body seems to have grown; it's not surprising that this time Woyzeck uses his hands.
Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: John Boyega, Sarah Greene, Ben Batt, Steffan Rhodri, Nancy Carroll, Darrell D’Silva
Director: Joe Murphy
Playwright: Georg Buchner, adapted by Jack Thorne
Production & costume designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Movement director: Polly Bennett
Illusion: Ben Hart
Presented by The Old Vic