Woyzeck at the Old Vic
You don’t get much more zeitgeist-y than the Old Vic’s new production of Woyzeck. The unfinished play has been adapted by Jack Thorne, the Harry Potter & The Cursed Child scribe transporting Georg Büchner’s unravelling soldier to the Cold War confines of 1980s Berlin. Not only that, it also features Star Wars’ John Boyega, swapping lightsabres for stage lights for the first time since the Force Awakens smashed records back in 2015.
Though the overly expositional first half doesn’t get going until just before the interval, it’s here where Boyega does his best work. Woyzeck’s traumatic childhood, and unexplained actions in Northern Ireland, have left him with an insatiable “need to be needed”. As he swallows pills for a drug trial this need turns aggressive, gradually coming closer and closer to the kind of domestic abuse he had to witness as a kid. Boyega captures a specifically masculine wish for control, especially over women, that is exacerbated by the class-warped discipline of the army.
In the second half, however, nuance is thrown out of the window. Boyega goes bigger and bigger until his performance is nothing but a series of regressive ticks used to signify mental collapse. To be fair to him, he is egged on by Joe Murphy’s direction and Thorne’s script, which increasingly indulge in farcical visions and Freudian flashbacks. This does indeed unveil a dizzying strangeness that gets the most out of Tom Scutt’s set, his labyrinthine slabs gradually dotted with the viscera of gunshot wounds. But while the fragmented, hallucinatory nature of the production works from a theatrical standpoint, the excesses it provokes in Boyega doesn’t.
As Woyzeck speeds through his descent into madness – Murphy literally has him foaming at the mouth at one point – a fresher thread emerges. Thorne has substantially expanded the role of Marie, the protagonist’s girlfriend and the mother to his child played with real strength by Sarah Greene. It is here that the desperate trap of poverty – for she is the one stuck, largely alone, caring for the baby above an abattoir – and the viscous nature of class difference, in the blasé nastiness of Nancy Carroll’s Maggie, is most sharply realised.
Sadly as the ending approaches, and Boyega becomes more rabid, Marie is swallowed whole, her fate merely a consequence of Woyzeck’s madness, leaving no room to contemplate the male-on-female violence the play hurtles towards.
Woyzeck is on at the Old Vic from 23rd May to 24th June 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.