Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre are to be warmly congratulated on their superb production of this very challenging play. Following last year's production of Kafka’s The Trial it is perhaps surprising that they chose another dark and brooding classic, Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. Both plays seem to have overcome insuperable odds to make it to the stage and share the distinction of doing so after the playwright’s death.
Buchner probably stated writing Woyzeck in 1836 and it was both fragmentary and incomplete on his death in 1837. Uniquely then it took a further 76 years before receiving its first public performance in Munich in 1913. It says much for Buchner’s central character and his plight that his incomplete work has been ‘finished’ by innumerable writers since his death, and has become one of the most performed and influential plays in the German theatre repertoire.
Woyzeck is to some a metaphor for Jesus Christ but in this production he is depicted as simply a working class hero. Woyzeck is a lowly soldier and lives with Marie and their child. He loves his family and in order to support them, in addition to his duties as a soldier, he earns extra money by performing menial tasks for the captain and, more ominously, by taking part in strange medical experiments for the doctor. These experiments have an adverse effect on Woyzeck’s physical and mental wellbeing. He is slowly descending into madness when Marie succumbs to the charms and uniform of the Drum Major; and so when her infidelity is cruelly and explicitly described to him the scene is set for the play’s stunning denouement.
The director chose to set the piece in a basement with half-tiled walls, and a few fixtures such as a sink and medicine cabinet giving the room a distinctly medical feel. Not however medical in a good way as the dirty sink and two rusty buckets give one an uneasy feeling. The set is delightfully observed in great detail with everything in a suitably distressed state except, it must be said, for the two beds and their trestles which were far too pristine for their surroundings.
James Somerville played our eponymous working class hero. Perhaps a little understated at the very beginning of the piece, but this character has by far the greatest emotional distance to travel. As acting challenges go descent into madness is as tough as it gets and James took us to the edge of the abyss and beyond with great skill. A bravura performance. Marie, Woyzeck’s inconstant partner, required an actor of unstudied natural beauty and Kate Walker had the audience in the palms of her hands from the outset. Marie regularly admitted that “Woyzeck is a good man” and so her betrayal of him to the Drum Major was all the more heartrending. Just a tip, if you are out on a date and your usual chat-up lines are not doing the trick as a last resort you could try “why not, we are all going to hell anyway”. It was all the excuse that Marie needed!
Special mention must go to John Fairless as the Doctor. His physicality was brilliant throughout but he managed to punctuate his performance with moments of comic genius. Amongst others in a short scene with a cat and also joining in with female ensemble dance routine. He maybe Fairless by name but he is certainly fearless as an actor.
The ensemble work was the bedrock upon which this production was founded and all members of the cast should be very proud of being part of such a committed team of actors. Of course no production can be so good without the unseen hand of a creative director. The evening was full of insightful directing and comic touches, and watch out for the way the closing set mirrors the opening set.
Two things could potentially put you off of this production, the price and the subject matter. Now pricing is a tricky thing but certainly do not think “it won’t be any good if tickets are only £5”. Suffice to say I would have paid more than double that and still felt completely satisfied. As for the content, yes Woyzeck does have a thoroughly miserable time throughout. Yes, you would love to rewrite the play so that he wins Marie back, but then of course the play would not have stood the test of time to become a classic.
The fact that you can care for Woyzeck and still end the evening feeling uplifted is down to the power of theatre in the supremely capable hands of the Nottingham Playhouse Youth Theatre.
Woyzeck runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 14 April 2012