Thomas Pickles as Woyzeck and the community ensemble. Pictures: Graeme Braidwood


Birmingham Rep


Woyzeck, by the short-lived German playwright Georg Büchner, dating from 1836, is a play for all time.

Büchner’s ‘radical approach to form and structure’, as the play’s splendid adapter Leo Butler explains, ‘the political act of giving voice to those at the bottom of the.pile, has bled into the DNA of contemporary playwriting . . . .

Butler’s translation, which has a brilliantly poetic but also a scrupulously natural quality, is a masterpiece. Indeed, its invention lies not so much in updating the language and using poetic licence to manipulate the text and toy with additions or cuts, but in the way he proves his point: almost 180 years old, Woyzeck (Büchner died at only 23), with its Dickensian insight into the perils of low life, is already a play for today.

Butler’s contribution is both wide and considerate: he realises the play’s power as it stands, and tinkers with the original as little as possible, while achieving a modern update that is scrupulously aligned with the original. Largely he lets the play speak for itself, couched in his own bold, direct language. In its new updated guise, the stagework is allowed to shine in its own right, peak for itself, without gratuitous corruption.

A collaboration between the Birmingham Rep and the 2018 biennial Birmingham International Dance Festival, this Woyzeck breaks additional new ground by filling the stage, intermittently, with a joyously alive, colourful Community company.

Given that the original has a minimal number of leads, it’s an extraordinarily bold idea. True, the girls’ first two appearances, jigging and bouncing and waving rather inanely to celebrate (armed with ‘peace’ banners) war’s conclusion (the severe looking marching soldiers, incidentally, were excellent: perfectly drilled, the real thing) and later celebrating a kind of superanimated party, made one fear  for this aspect of the show.

But then much better was to come. Some in the chorus act as highly proficient stage hands, manipulating props and machinery, all to excellent effect. The dancers, with a delicious rhythmic precision, make an uplifting first contribution, vividly choreographed by assistant director Rosie Kay.


The community soldiers

From then on many of the community actors have more precise, even briefly lead roles, individualistic and much better defined; and each one excels, with each buoyant or sinister sequence vividly and aptly lit by Lee Curran.

The language is often earthy, and rightly so. Büchner was not one to mince his words. Shit, piss (important for the plot and its oppressive medical scenes), puke, prick, arse, crappy, bollocks, effing, bullshit, sod all make their entry. None of this is gratuitous: we are dealing with the lower edge of society, and such plebeian and military jargon is wholly apt. Likewise modern allusions appear, as often as not entertaining: ‘Stalin, Robert Mugabe, Charlie Watts’, ‘Time travel’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘Kleenex’ (amusingly indecently used in the rather good Construction Worker’ exchange),sly allusions to pederasty, ‘Nobel Prize’, ‘Samsung Galaxy’, ‘Twitter’ ‘Soya bean decaf latte’ plus a number of others lend the script colour: but updated though they be, they never seem inappropriate, and are never overdone: rather they are beneficial, a legitimate extra touch of humour; always witty, usually ironic. 

Tom Rackham’s music is a total success. Early on we see a small group of extras, a quintet in fact (clarinet, ukulele, double bass, guitar, makeshift drum) who give a very competent little performance. But it is the way Rackham keeps the music quiet and non self-indulgent, usually employing a soft volume and almost subliminally heard, long drawn-out low register drone that lends the action atmosphere, in an ingenious manner that comforts or offers hope, and never obtrudes or interferes. It showed a marked empathy with the unremitting Angsts of the pessimistic text.

The set is apt too: compact heaps of sandbags stuffed into corners; and revealed partway, a soaring, almost overawing wall of grey-black bricks, gloweringly suggesting an awful slum, that bespeaks the bareness of the lives lived beneath it, and the lack of any beauty in their surroundings except such fun as they can generate for themselves (as the chorus do).

But so are the main characters drawn from the community members. Joseph Hyland is the Drum Major, whose devil- may-care, cynical, bullying tactics drive a wedge between the two lead characters, Woyzeck and Marie. Linda Hisgett is the Doctor, whose examination of Woyzeck with a clutch of assistants (including Samantha McGrath as an equally bossy trainee medic) perfectly illuminates the helplessness that obsess and ultimately destroys him.

Nicolas Sullivan’s Captain, in the famous scene where Woyzeck has to shave him, and feels put upon by his senior officer’s mockery and lustfulness and endless philosophical banter, is an arresting role, beautifully spoken and as artfully characterised as the officer is an unsubtle personality.


Community cast Amir Ali as Showman and Richella McPherson as Robot

Best of all, Richella McPherson’s Robot: utterly believable and incredibly skilfully moved: jerky, severe, rather an awesome character, and unnerving, her gleaming, domineering armour somehow a parody of the main action and Woyzeck’s increasingly incarcerated and miserable identity.

Is the battered Woyzeck himself a kind of robot? Thomas Pickles in the title role gives a stupendous, brilliant performance. With Friedrich Johann (Franz) Woyzeck, the tension never drops. Right from the start, with his friend and fellow soldier Andres (Troy Richards, whose excellence in the first scene sets the play so cleverly on its way), he shows his mettle. Or rather, his problems. Woyzeck (the name means ‘Soldier’, so a kind of Everyman) is forever fretful. His mind works overtime, frenetically. He is constantly breathless. He is a ready-made victim, constantly on edge, fearful of present and future alike, bruised and battered by life.

When his girlfriend, or partner, Marie says to him, ‘Why do you have to look so hunted all the time?’ she hits the nail on the head. For Woyzeck, nothing can go right. As Pickles shows us, he is a loser from start to finish. He feels manipulated, and, is. Indeed, Andres even echoes him, fed up with others ‘telling me my business time and again.’ Woyzeck feels imprisoned in a life he cannot escape. He tries to find meaning in family, but gradually loses his mind as his other obsessions take over. Büchner shows us the inward collapse and destruction of a very ordinary individual.

Gradually Woyzeck sees visions. He has a series of soliloquys, each one of which Pickles delivers with a Hamlet-like intensity. Another way he seeks escape is by philosophising, as in the scene with the Captain. Each reflects on the way the world is going, and on the way the individual can respond to the world. It’s a great, rather nasty scene, and as the play unfolds Woyzeck embarks further and further on musing, part true to the letter and amazingly perceptive, part pointless and distressing: merely self-destructive escapism.

The joy and satisfaction, beside Woyzeck’s superbly crafted, endless panics which he periodically takes out on his girlfriend Marie, one of them clutching their new born baby, is that Leo Butler’s text preserves so perfectly the sparseness of the original.  If Pickles’ Woyzeck is not just fabulously spoken and paced, and it is, but so tragic and moving, so endlessly uptight and intense, struggling with existential anxieties, so perfectly honed, so nail-bitingly frenzied and jittery - and patently doomed, Jalleh Alizadeh’s Marie makes an ideal foil, tender, naturally family-inclined, yet puzzled and trapped by both Woyzeck and her baby, hence also beginning to reach out beyond her boxed-in life and the consequent frustration and loneliness.  

woyzeck and marie

Thomas Pickles as Woyzeck and Jalleh Alizadeh as Marie

You know, somehow, that Woyzeck is going to end up lashing out: doing something drastic and desperate. But you can also sense, worryingly, that she, his nearest and dearest, may most likely emerge as the inevitable victim. Their intermittent exchanges are quick-fire, both affectionate and censorious, imbued with family banter and littered with bitter rows; but she cannot keep up with his growing panics, his fretfulness, his visions.

Latterly she realises he is a candidate not just for the psychiatrist, but for the asylum. Marie genuinely loves him, but she is impotent: increasingly powerless to help, cannot with love free him of his confusions, and desperate in her vain attempts to do so.

Having knifed Marie to death, part believing her (it appears rightly) to have cuckolded him with the loose-living, shameful, abusive Drum Major, Woyzeck embarks on his own final journey, taking a boat on to the lake (rather effectively done) and succumbing to the suicide he has somehow been always destined for. But it’s a long speech he makes at this final juncture. It’s as if, having not made up his mind about anything in life, he finds it even harder to make it up about this, his own removal: he postpones, and postpones.

Perhaps only one thing was missing. In Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, as Marie’s body lies lifeless and the water swallows him up and cures him of all his problems, we hear children playing. ‘Hop hop!’ they sing, with a blissful innocence. In the opera, the child is no baby, but about four or five years old. Amongst others, it is their child singing, ignorant and innocent of the double tragedy. The past may have crumbled into disaster, but there is, possibly, a future. To 23-06-18

Roderic Dunnett


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