It smells of earth. In the expectant gloom and chatter, the smell penetrates everything; muddies thoughts, muffles voices, buries conversations in a layer of murky suspense. It’s soon obvious why; as the lights come on, and the audience settles down, all that is visible is a circle of soil, surrounded by a thick tangle of cables and industrial electronics. Silence falls.
A man steps into the light, through the cabling. He’s dressed simply but in contrast to the rawness of his environment, there’s a magnetizing humanness about him.
“Look around!” he cries. (Like sheep, we look.) “Everything’s rigid, hard, dark. – What lies beneath it all?” – and then he transforms, before our very eyes, into someone completely different.

The play hasn’t happened yet.

But the vivaciousness with which Saul Barrett and Joshua Silverlock, two students taking on the Edinburgh Fringe, describe their reinvention of Woyzeck draws me into another world. That world, originally outlined in Buechner’s unfinished script, has been adapted and re-claimed by Saul and Joshua’s independently founded production company Missing Cat in a project that has taken them almost a year to complete. Despite the dark tone of the play, described by Saul as “humanity laid bare in its dirtiest form searching for sanity and the sanitary,” the two of them are positively beaming. Knee-deep in rehearsals, the “juicy part” of preparations, with the finish line in sight, they can’t help being excited. The energy is infectious – and it’s clear why the two of them have teamed up; they regularly finish each other’s sentences, bouncing off one another in sparkling creativity, even during this brief conversation.

But the road hasn’t always been easy. Joshua, director and producer, describes how he has “only recently felt the other hats come on.” He’s been pre-occupied with financial and organisational decisions, including a crowd-funding campaign and, he says with a hint of self-consciousness, “I guess, creating a brand.” Figuring out how to present themselves on social media, advertise and encourage donations has taken up most of the past year – and only with their first production meeting in the Royal Court last month have creative decisions started to take the foreground. “I actually found the meeting quite emotional,” Saul says, turning to his director “It went from me texting you from a bus one day going ‘should we give this thing a go?’ and you going ‘yeah, let’s do it!’ to suddenly being something that is shared – something that is no longer just yours.”

Now the two are heading a team of around ten people – and they stress the importance of choosing your group wisely. Paying their team professionally isn’t an option, so they depend on their teams’ dedication. “It’s a double-edged thing,” they explain “you rely a lot on goodwill and friendship – which is sometimes tenuous because it doesn’t give you much leverage as an entrepreneurial organizer – but there’s also a really lovely spirit that we’ve brought with us in recruiting people from all over the place.”

The team work together closely, but the idea for the project germinated with Saul and Joshua. Both were fascinated by the “very rich, very bare-bones” nature of the play and language – “not colloquial, not Shakespeare – a kind of dirty poetry” – but realised they had never seen a good production. “It’s quite a simple archetypal plot – it’s kind of Othello: one man trying to provide for his family, she commits an act of infidelity and he takes revenge. It’s not that. It’s not the plot. There’s something almost inarticulable about the atmosphere of it and the world and these beautiful little strangenesses.” Determined to do the text justice, they decided to give it a go.

Their version collapses the play’s 14 characters into 3 actors. Two take the roles of the main characters, while the third transforms into different people through on-stage transitions. In fact, much of what would usually occur ‘behind-the-scenes’ is incorporated into the performance; including an on-stage sound desk operated by characters who aren’t immediately involved in the scene. “Our production is a primal, visceral and incredibly involving experience for the audience, which lays bare the mechanics of theatre while also pulling you into the world of the characters.”

I wonder how this works exactly, since Brecht, for instance, often revealed theses ‘mechanics’ to alienate, rather than involve his audience. Joshua disagrees with “the corollary of alienating the audience being that they don’t believe in the same way.” Historically, he argues, “theatre has tried to reduce the leap of the imagination as much as possible so that what you’re watching is real” i.e. through realistic costumes and sets, but “you’re never going to completely reduce it and just by making it smaller, you actually magnify the cracks. In some ways it’s easier to believe in a punch and judy show.” Instead, keeping true to Buechner’s sketch-like implications of a wider system, a larger world beyond the lines, Missing Cat wants to “give the audience the crumbs with which to feed their own imaginations,” to make the “audiences active in completing the picture – instead of being talked down to.”

When I ask about Fringe, their jaws simultaneously tighten. “By any kind of logical thinking we should just not go to the Fringe,” there’s a glint in Joshua’s eye as he says this, which makes it clear he’s only half-joking “it’s so far away, so pointlessly expensive, so clogged… I started this as if there’s a but – I don’t think there’s a but.”
“But you want people to see it.” Saul breaks in. London venues are even more expensive, and don’t give you the opportunity to put on 15 shows in a row – it’s a learning experience for young performers. “It does feel like a rite of passage,” Joshua concedes “getting that Fringe Ox blood on your face.”

Fringe does mean some limitations, however. Since it consists of one space catering to so many different productions, with little storage space, it’s difficult to create original sets. “What you get is this really great stuff going on, but in this really homogenous environment.” Much of the design for Missing Cat’s production is driven by the urge to change this and push the boundaries as far as they can; bringing their own technical kit and re-inventing the black box, so they can make Woyzeck stand out visually, too.

“The venue basically hate us” Joshua says with a hint of a smile “but they’ll love us when we get there – if everything goes to plan.”

Catch Missing Cat’s premier at New River Studios, London on the 26th, 27th and 28th of this month, or at the Fringe during 2-10th and 12-17th of August!

Photo credits: Max Longmuir