Written in 1836 by German playwright, activist, scientist and medical doctor Georg Büchner, Woyzeck is generally regarded as the first social drama in German literature.
A dramatic fragment of 31 scenes, it was considered one of the most radical plays of its period in both language and subject matter and it continues to be a challenge for directors, actors, and set designers alike. Set between a kind of hyper-naturalism and delirious pre-expressionism, both the play and the 1925 opera adaption Wozzeck by Alban Berg speak of the desire to live and to love irrespective of social class, and society’s cruel response to that desire.
Woyzeck, a lowly-paid soldier, tries to supplement his meagre income by performing menial jobs for his Captain and by participating in dubious medical experiments conducted by the Doctor. Eating only pea soup prescribed by the Doctor, who is unscrupulously testing the effects of a mono-nutritional diet on Woyzeck, the young man soon develops hallucinations, apocalyptic visions, and signs of malnutrition.
Yet, both the Captain and the Doctor continue to exploit Woyzeck’s body and mind and revel in humiliating him in public, fully aware of the young soldier’s financial dependence upon them. Woyzeck’s additional earnings go to his girlfriend Marie and her child.
When Woyzeck sees Marie dancing with another soldier, fury and jealousy rise in him uncontrollably, and when she starts having an affair with a Drum-major, he begins to hear inner voices that tell him to kill her.
Woyzeck does not have enough money to buy a pistol, so he buys a knife instead and stabs Marie during one of their evening walks at the bank of a lake. Woyzeck is found with blood on his hands and in the final passage of the play, the judge remarks that seldom such a beautiful murder is found.
In contrast to the language of classical 19th century German drama, Büchner uses a highly expressive and startlingly modern language well ahead of its time. The dramatists’ short and abrupt sentences are often left incomplete but are rich with colloquialisms and the use of grammar and syntax tailored to the respective social status of his protagonists.
Büchner’s intense, pre-expressionist language is full with exclamations, interjections and ellipses, and acts as a medium to show the disastrous effects of social class and an overriding existential isolation.
Marie’s murder is complexly portrayed as an act of Woyzeck’s mental disturbance, as much as of jealousy and his unloading of aggression against a society (represented by the Doctor, the Captain and the Drum-major) that has systematically destroyed him.
In search of an ending
All versions of Woyzeck are different. The script was left unfinished by playwright Georg Büchner’s death in 1837, so every production imagines its own ending.
This production, which comes to the Sydney Festival via the Thalia Theatre Hamburg, reminds us that the social safety net we have come to be accustomed to since the welfare reforms of the late 19th century only carries some, and inevitably lets others fall. Quite literally, there’s no use hanging on.
Director Jette Steckel’s production is focused on the social and political mechanisms of seduction (career, money, sex) and what happens when the individual is told to leave the game. This is a Woyzeck that is as exciting, uncompromising and disturbing now as it was when it was first premiered in 1913, some 80 years after the playwright’s early death of typhoid aged 28. It’s a real coup for the Sydney Festival.
Steckel, Wilson and Waits
The Sydney Festival production directed by the young German director Jette Steckel, shows Woyzeck in the text and music version by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits from 2000.
Steckel has become something of a specialist for German classics in the last years since her graduation from the Hamburg Theatre Academy in 2007, and her analytical yet physical style lends itself to the third version of the Wilson/Waits Woyzeck.
Yet, where Wilson’s scenography utilised expressionist aesthetics and a highly reduced, anti-psychological choreography and his trademark detailed lighting dramaturgy, Steckel’s production does the opposite.
The young and talented director’s Woyzeck is an edgy and raw reading of the play – often noisy, often irritating, and carried through with high emotions and relentless physical agility by the outstanding cast with Philipp Hochmair as Woyzeck and Franziska Hartmann as Marie.
Set designer Florian Lösche sets the play in a single set design, comprising entirely a large net made of thick ropes hung in a metal frame within the proscenium. Throughout the scenes, the net is in motion, being used to precariously divide the stage space, or to be tilted vertically, then horizontally. Lösche’s net may seem a simple, single message by director Jette Steckel, yet is is a highly effective one by demanding of the actors a highly physical language of climbing, hanging on and falling.
In all its consequence, the net is symbolic of the individuals’ fragile position within society. In the end, the two outsiders, Woyzeck and Marie, one barely alive and one dead, have fallen through the net, both physically and symbolically. No use hanging on.
Woyzeck opens at the Sydney Festival on January 7 and will run until January 12. Details here.