“Take it easy, Woyzeck…nice and slow.”
Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is certainly recognizable to anyone who’s ever taken a contemporary theatre history class. Left incomplete upon the playwright’s death, the play is usually one of the theatre student’s first experiences with fragmented dramaturgy (or narrative structure). You’ll probably also learn that Woyzeck in particular became very famous for its numerous stage adaptations and remains one of the most performed and influential plays in the German repertory. It’s really no surprise then why German ambassador, Werner Wnendat, was in attendance opening night of Third Wall Theatre’s Woyzeck’s Head, adapted and directed by company Artistic Director James Richardson.
To be completely honest, I think Richardson’s mise en scéne in Woyzeck’s Head is some of the best local work I’ve seen in Ottawa to date. The captivating design aesthetic combined with some seriously strong performances make for an hour of theatre that demands your utmost attention. Truly not to be missed, this production represents the epitome of Third Wall Theatre’s new slogan: reignited, reimagined, and refreshed.
The plot is a rather complicated one as the play has no true ending and even the arrangement of the scenes is often debated. At its core, however, Woyzeck revolves around the story of a man who, in hopes of obtaining some sort of social and economic prestige for his wife and child (born out of wedlock), is ultimately both physically and mentally exploited at the hands of his “betters”. No matter the adaptation, Büchner’s social commentary always rings true: is a man’s morality directly linked to his social status? The exploration of poverty and the social conditions in Büchner’s time still find their parallels in 2016.
Let’s start with the design elements that make up this show and I’ll try my best to be brief and succinct (because there is a lot happening on stage). First, the use of video/image projections is both impressive and, sorry for being repetitive, refreshing. Set designer Graham Price gives us a pair of large white screens that make up only two walls of a larger rotating rectangular prism (this is Woyzeck’s literal and figurative prison) on which Richardson blends together short videos, images, and shadow play to create a dynamic ‘space-within-a-space’ that contrasts completely with the rest of the stage and its looming, seemingly impenetrable, blackness. It’s as if this rectangular prism represents the inner recesses of Woyzeck’s mind and all the imagery that colours its walls are flashes of memory, emotion, and sanity.
Second, the costumes (designed by Sarah Waghorn) also deserve a mention as the feminist in me absolutely relished in the ungendered outfits being worn by Katie Bunting and Kristina Watt, playing B and A respectively, who are representing some traditionally male roles. Finally, the sound, I thought, is also quite good in this show. The pitch of the feedback cues are perfect in expressing Woyzeck’s mental breakdown, though, if you have a sensitivity to loud noise I might suggest bringing ear plugs (I get pretty paranoid about damaging ear drums, just sayin’).
Moving on to the performances themselves, Woyzeck’s Head showcases their three person ensemble as one strong creative unit. Andrew Moore, as the titular character, has his work cut out for him in that this particular adaptation places Woyzeck near, if not already over, the edge of sanity. It’s difficult, I would assume, for an actor to start so high up on the ‘tension scale’ (and also difficult to figure out how to create a compelling trajectory from there), but I think Moore makes it work well for this production.
Bunting and Watt are a superb team as they relentlessly torment Woyzeck as characters B and A, who we come to further recognize as Büchner’s figures the Captain, Marie, the Doctor, and the Drum Major. Strong, yet simple, changes in both the vocals and physicality makes transitions in character very clear and distinct; the audience always knows exactly who is talking. What I appreciated most about their performances, however, is the feeling that B and A are not necessarily playing the prescribed gender of the character (with the exception of Marie perhaps) but rather play the character’s social class, which is why I think Buchner’s commentary is still very apparent in Richardson’s staging.
It could be argued that the reason behind such a positive response is because I am familiar with the original* text. Notwithstanding the fact that I haven’t picked up my copy of Woyzeck in several years nor have I seen a live performance of it, I don’t think Richardson’s adaptation is that difficult to understand or get behind. If you came looking for a linear narrative, you weren’t going to get one to begin with. Simply put, this is a show that you feel. The idea is to take in the emotions, the tensions, and the absolute pressure Woyzeck is experiencing in his brain. We’re not following neat plot lines here, but rather violent waves and currents. Does that sound like some hippy BS? It’s not meant to; give in to it. You won’t often regret it.
Overall, Woyzeck’s Head, closing out TACTICS’ 2015-2016 season, is an inspired recreation of Büchner’s classic text. Its staging is fresh and original in the Ottawa theatre scene and one can only hope that Third Wall Theatre continues on in this direction for at least some time. Meeting my expectations and then some, this production has some serious eier* *. Bravo to all involved!
*Woyzeck was originally written in German, any text I am familiar with is one of the many English translations.