Wilson & Waits do Woyzeck

John Potts

When Georg Buchner died of typhoid in 1837, his play Woyzeck was an incomplete jumble of pages. That mess of paper was eventually worked into a famously Expressionist production in 1913 which inspired Alban Berg's opera. This tale of a German soldier's descent into madness and his murder of his wife has come, through those powerful productions, to represent the disturbing underside of Modernity.

Robert Wilson's version of Woyzeck, with music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, throws the pages back up in the air. When they land we're in Coney Island, although the German Expressionist style remains intact. In the 20 scenes of this production we get the grotesque together with the burlesque; we get carnival, love and murder: we get Wilson's distinctive take on the modernity of Woyzeck.

Unlike the earlier Expressionist versions, Wilson's focus is not on the individual's spiral into the dark pit of madness. It's rather on the machinery of a social order that could reduce a man to such a desperate state. And 'machinery' is everywhere: in the minimal, angular sets, including large arrows dropping behind the characters; in the mechanical running-on-the-spot of Woyzeck himself; in the inhuman figures of the 2 doctors (male and female joined at the hip) to whom Woyzeck has sold his body for medical experiments. These leering exponents of bio-tech represent the forces of progress preying on the weak; they also help situate Woyzeck's plight within a recognisably Modern social apparatus.

Woyzeck's fate is extremely moving in this production, perhaps surprisingly given the cavalcade of bizarre and grotesque imagery on display. The script, written by Wolfgang Weirs and Ann-Christen Rommen and developed at Copenhagen's Betty Nansen Teatret, foregrounds the relationship of Woyzeck and his wife Marie, who prostitutes herself to the army's Drum Major. But the key emotive element is undoubtedly the music. Waits and Brennan skilfully exploit the simple melody of “Coney Island Baby”, injecting pathos into the lovers' tragedy. Even the murder has a gentle beauty to it, as if Woyzeck can find no other way to express his passion.

Throughout, the moral universe of Woyzeck is superbly evoked by the songs and by Wilson's direction, which harnesses his surreal imagery to the linear narrative of Woyzeck's story. The prologue, for instance, is a carnival led by a giant, with a chorus of “Misery's The River of the World”. The doctors lead one musical number with the refrain “God's Away On Business”; the devilish Drum Major gloats to the hapless Woyzeck that he has “plucked another man's rose.”

Wilson's Woyzeck is a remarkable synthesis, and a successful one. It takes the dark side of Modernity on a trip to Coney Island, somehow emerging with a musical full of beauty and dread.

Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner, director Robert Wilson, Odeon Theatre, Paris, Nov 29-Dec 9

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg.

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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