Visually, Woyzeck on the Highveld is a feast: the puppets are extremely well-created, designed by the talented Adrian Kohler. There is a screen at the back of the stage which is continually filled with ever-changing black and white sketches depicting the interior of a house, a hillside, a set table, to give depth to the set as the puppets move around.
The set was delightful and the play engaging but as a whole the production was mystifying. The plot line and characterisation are not made clear to the audience and the script lurches oddly between light-heartedness and gravity.
Directed by William Kentridge and produced by the Handspring Puppet Company, a lot of effort has obviously gone into producing and acting Woyzeck on the Highveld. It’s just a shame its surreal aspect prevented complete enjoyment, and the writing could have been made less obscure so that the audience feels more engaged in the plot and can care more about the characters’ lives. A collection of random images and objects sketched onto the screen at the back (telephones, shower cords, ears to name a few), that did not seem to have any real sense attached or any real relation to the action of the play left the audience feeling even more adrift.
While the puppets were wonderfully designed and their expressive faces helped convey the characters’ different personalities, the illusion was somewhat affected by the fact that the puppets appear in full view alongside the actors that manipulate them and talk for them. Even when the humans using the puppets were supposed to be hidden from view, they could be easily glimpsed by the audience, mouths and hands moving as the puppets jerked across the stage.
The script is based on a nineteenth-century German play by Georg Buchner. Woyzeck on the Highveld is set in South Africa in the 1950s, but seems a clumsily re-hashed and overly-philosophic version of the original in term of its writing.
The play has several truly dark moments, and the use of puppets adds to this sinister dimension. The appearance of a wooden rhinoceros in one scene is both strange and disturbing, as it is hit with a stick by its master before having a gun attached to its tusks, apparently succeeding in turning the weapon on itself, intentionally or otherwise.
From snatched snippets of conversation overhead at the end of the performance, it seems the rest of the audience was left equally bewildered by the performance and did not know quite what to make of this odd little offering.