Review: Woyzeck

Richard Birch is impressed by a production that goes where few dare to go

This production of Buchner’s 1837 play loses none of the power it possessed upon its original release. Run entirely in German by the Oxford German Society, it was very refreshing to see a piece of theatre so different from those that tend to be put on – it felt while watching that one was watching a play from a sociocultural backdrop, seeming by turns strange and deeply moving.

The eponymous Woyzeck (Stephen Jones) suffers from something akin to paranoid schizophrenia; waking from cruel nightmares only to imagine that the persecutions continue. A soldier subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, he finds little peace in his life, except in the presence of his friend and implied lover Andres (Henner Petin), making Andres’ fate all the more tragic. The play moves fast, such that occasionally the audience is left a little confused (especially in the fast dialogue scenes, in which switching between looking at the actors and the subtitle screen became a little difficult); yet this pace succeeds in creating a more authentic, impressionistic view of the play’s themes.

Dr Coffinnail (Brigit Rauchbauer) is the main implementer of these torments, forcing Woyzeck to live on a diet that consists solely of peas to begin with. Her insouciant menace, however, becomes all the more apparent as the tortures worsen to a deeply scarring climax. Not to spoil it for anyone wishing to see the play, the ending is amongst the most dramatically powerful moments this reviewer has ever seen on stage. Rendered in the enclosed environs of the Burton Taylor Studio, the actors succeeded in bringing out the defining traits of their characters, the broken sadness of Woyzeck, the horrifying sadism of Dr Coffinnail.

Left unfinished by Buchner at the time of his death, a lot of the play feels somehow like this – as if there are shifting shadows behind each character; perhaps best exemplified by the unnamed witch-like character who pronounces ‘Alles war tot’ and the loneliness of an unspecified orphan. This seems strangely out of context, removed from the scenes of war that are grimly set in reality. The references to the moon, such as Andres’ song and Woyzeck’s claim that it looks like a bloodied knife, also hint to this something other; creating an unearthly atmosphere to the proceedings that makes the horror of the reality all the more powerfully realised.

The play was brilliantly executed, but suffered from the occasional moment of confusion; while the odd technical flaw made it hard to follow the plot at times. Ultimately, however, this was one of the most invigorating pieces of theatre recently performed – a refreshing and highly original production.