Woyzeck at the Old Vic is a retelling of a play left unfinished by playwright George Büchner at the time of his death in 1837. In this version, the setting is moved to Berlin in 1981, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The titular character, Frank Woyzeck, is a young British soldier stationed in Berlin, struggling to provide a home for his girlfriend, Marie, and their child. As they aren’t married they cannot live in the barracks, but Woyzeck’s meagre salary can barely afford their tiny apartment. Desperate for money, Woyzeck agrees to take part in a mysterious clinical trial of an unknown drug. Here begins his descent from a struggling young man into desperation, delusion and, eventually, insanity.
The story retains many of the elements of Büchner’s original- Woyzeck is struggling with poverty and insecurity, and is manipulated by people in power: his sleazy army captain engages him in menial tasks, whilst the mysterious doctor engages him in the trial without any information. However, this adaptation heaps additional trauma into Woyzeck’s past. We are told he was abandoned by his mother, later retrieved from the orphanage only to be forced to watch his mother have sex with a customer. He has been plagued by rejection from potential foster parents and deemed to be ‘difficult’. The play also makes allusions to an ‘episode’ during a previous assignment in Belfast, that leads to Woyzeck being shunned by many of the other soldiers. These additions are somewhat excessive. Buchner intended the original to depict the struggles of the working class- Woyzeck’s troubles a result of financial pressure and abuse by those in power. However, the multiple tragedies almost remove this message. This Woyzeck is so troubled that what happens to him seems almost inevitable.
Star Wars actor John Boyega is compelling as the titular Woyzeck. He captures a delicate vulnerability keeping the audience invested in his emotional journey and, in the final scenes, brings an almost surreal intensity to the role.
The change in setting to 1980s Berlin adds little to the story. There are some attempts to connect the divided Berlin to what is happening to Woyzeck. However, these references carry no weight and the attempt itself seems disingenuous. This is a real pity as everything else really comes together. The staging is immersive, with the use of shifting walls that add depth to every scene. Moments where Woyzeck rips into the walls to reveal blood and flesh are powerful, especially as those walls remain on stage, forming an increasingly bloodstained backdrop.
The real strength of this adaptatio is the cast. John Boyega (of Star Wars fame) is truly compelling as the titular Woyzeck. He captures a delicate vulnerability that makes Woyzeck an endearing character and ensures the audience is undoubtedly on his side. As Woyzeck begins to fall apart, Boyega keeps the audience invested in his emotional journey and, in the final scenes, brings an almost surreal intensity to the role as Woyzeck’s life collapses around him. There are strong performances from the rest of the main cast, including Sarah Greene as Marie and Ben Batt as a fellow soldier, although it’s clear that Boyega is the star of the show.
All in all, the strong production and cast are somewhat let down by the story. Woyzeck contains so many compelling elements, but the overly-tragic backstories pull the audience out of the narrative.
3 stars Woyzeck is on at the Old Vic until 24th June Tickets from £12