Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, required reading for students of Western theater, is widely considered a precursor of both expressionism and Bertolt Brecht's epic drama. A dark and difficult play, it is frequently produced and almost as frequently disappointing in production. Having sat through far too many ambitious but tedious performances of the play, I am pleased to report that the Gate Theater London production, now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse, is highly entertaining, appropriately disturbing, exuberantly theatrical, and occasionally brilliant. Woyzeck's plot is episodic and elliptical, following the titular protagonist (Edward Hogg)—a soldier who must submit to medical experiments in order to provide (barely) enough food for his girlfriend and baby—through a series of indignities and his eventual descent into violence and despair. The play was discovered after Büchner's premature death in 1837 in an apparently unfinished state. The surviving text is a series of separate scenes that were left unnumbered, meaning it is the job of any director to determine the order in which they will be presented. While there is some dark humor inherent in the text, the overall atmosphere is relentlessly dark, and productions often suffer from a one-note gloominess.
Daniel Kramer has certainly not fallen into that trap in adapting and directing his own version of the play. For its first half, this production almost felt like Büchner as filtered through Monty Python and Benny Hill. Woyzeck rode a child's tricycle around the stage while Elvis sang over the theater's sound system. The sexual innuendo was played up in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner that initially belied the seriousness of both the issues being explored and Woyzeck's deteriorating mental state. Kramer filtered the text's carnivalesque surrealism through this lighthearted sensibility for perhaps a little too long.
Then, just as the production's self-aware cleverness was starting to grate on me, Kramer pulled the rug out from under the audience by indicting us for our enjoyment. In one of the production's centerpiece scenes, the Drum Major (David Harewood) beat Woyzeck senseless while preening and flirting with the audience. Harewood's winning smile and athletic presence allowed him to charm the audience despite the abhorrent nature of his actions. As the audience laughed and applauded the Drum Major, Woyzeck lay groaning on the ground. In a rebuke to our applause, he moaned, "Yay, violence." The moment brought another laugh, but it was also a recognition of our own culpability in the virulent brand of masculinity that led the Drum Major to batter his victim.
While the production's humor didn't disappear altogether after that, the tone shifted considerably. Fewer moments were played for laughs, and the violence was increasingly alarming. This tonal shift was achieved entirely through pacing and line delivery, while the show's visual and sonic aesthetic remained consistent. David Howe's exquisite lighting, often filtered through an onstage mist, worked to enhance Kramer's painterly staging. The production's visual beauty was juxtaposed with a soundtrack made up mostly of Elvis, Dolly Parton, and Beethoven as well as occasional sound effects that rendered individual moments alternately cartoonish and haunting. A number of moments were so gorgeously staged, they lingered in my memory as works of art unto themselves.
The performances were excellent throughout. Hogg's fragile, tormented Woyzeck and Hare's gleefully sadistic Drum Major were particularly memorable, but Roger Evans, Fred Pearson, Tony Guilfoyle, and Diana Payne-Myers also deserve mention as Andres, Captain, Doctor, and Grandmother, respectively.
Along with its virtuosity and occasional excesses, the production takes pains to underscore the text's thematic concerns. Exchanges of money are highlighted, the poverty and social standing of soldiers decried, and the highly destructive conflation of masculinity with violence is explored from a variety of angles.
This Woyzeck is not intended to be a "definitive" production, but as a provocative take on a canonical yet, paradoxically, unfinished text. As Kramer has noted, "The profundity of this play lies in its ruins." His singular excavation of these "ruins" is one of the season's most memorable evenings of theater.