The Old Vic has really been spoiling its theatre patrons with its latest station. Having started the year with Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they’re at it again with casting movie stars with Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega in the title role of their new production of Woyzeck.
An unfinished play by German playwright Georg Buchner in 1836, writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has taken up the pen where he left off. Thorne’s version keeps its setting on the borders of East and West Berlin, but changes his protagonist to a member of the British Army and sets in the 1980s. Living on the edges of poverty with his Irish wife Marie (Sarah Greene), Woyzeck is driven to increasingly desperate measures to make ends meet, eventually participating in an experimental drug trial that leads to hallucinatory visions and the eventual loss of his mind. Thorne’s version adds a new dimension to the already disturbing play; Woyzeck is haunted by traumatic visions of his past that follow him from childhood into adulthood, and leaves an indelible, throbbing impact on his psyche.
John Boyega is able to tap into the darkness embedded into the script, painting a sympathetic picture of Woyzeck at the mercy of financial woes and the manipulation of those in power. Boyega really proves his acting range in this production, capturing the mental agony of Woyzeck as he succumbs to madness. Initially a loving husband with nothing but charm in his relationship with his wife, it’s absolutely terrifying to watch him rapidly deteriorate into a tortured monster, panic evident on his face as his hallucinations begin to get the better of him and warp his mind. In his lengthy final monologue, Boyega is no longer dancing on the edges of madness, but has fallen into full blown psychosis, shifting between eerie, snarling words and intimidating shouts, a bestial husk of the man Woyzeck once was, perfectly embodying every sense of the tragic hero.
Nancy Carroll’s role as Maggie, the oblivious and bored officer’s wife, toes the line between caricature and something much deeper, hinting that her character is much more worldly than she initially lets on as she appraises the Woyzecks’ impoverished home, inhabiting a hidden, wicked edge. Meanwhile, Darrell D’Silva’s Doctor Martens and Steffan Rhodri’s Captain Thompson provide a disturbing chemistry onstage, as they work together with not a shred of pity for the ailing Woyzeck.
Tom Scutt’s set is strangely claustrophobic in spite of how freely it moves. Using grey, rock like panels suggesting buildings under construction, they’re also somewhat reminiscent of individual prison cells, reflecting Woyzeck’s own prison of his mind and also his state of poverty. During Woyzeck’s hallucination sequences, the panels float around the stage, haunting the space like otherworldly monoliths and revealing shocking visions to both Woyzeck and the audience, and work especially well with Neil Austin’s nightmarish lighting. When Woyzeck punches through a wall, in the next act, the hole that remains appears to be bleeding, as if a simulacra of his own fading mental stability.
Woyzeck is a play that disturbs, a brutally affecting piece of theatre that accomplishes its portrayal of a life less fortunate with the aid of a deeply unsettling set design. Overall, Joe Murphy’s direction successfully draws out the painful truths of a cruel world and works to steer Boyega into what is almost certainly an Olivier-worthy performance as his life completely crumbles before his very eyes, spurred on by a scarily Freudian and overtly sexual backstory. Ultimately left completely alone, Woyzeck is left screaming and shouting into the black oblivion of the stage, an image that will stay with audiences long after leaving the theatre.
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan
Performance attended 24/5/17 (Matinee)
Woyzeck plays at the Old Vic, London till 24 June. Tickets available here