Bravo, violence.

Culturebot should probably not admit this, but he had never seen Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck before. Oh sure, he read it in college and knew the basics – story of a soldier, ahead-of-its-time, first play from the perspective of the common man, harbinger of the modern age/twentieth century, influenced Kafka, Brecht and Beckett. But for some reason it never really struck me.

Then I saw the production by The Gate Theatre in London, currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I was stunned.

The story is simple: Woyzeck, a poor, hapless soldier, is trapped by his circumstances. Forced by his station in life to perform menial and degrading work, scorned by his social “betters”, he struggles to maintain his dignity. He is fearful, sad and alienated, he thinks too much about his life and the world but can never quite make sense of it, never quite get a cohesive picture. His one respite in the world is his girlfriend (who he can’t marry because they are too poor, apparently) and their baby. His love for her is all he has in the world, the one spot of joy and hope, his only respite from the crushing burden of a powerless existence. The girlfriend, Marie, lured by gifts and the thrill of escaping her own tedious existence at home with a screaming baby, allows herself to be seduced by Woyzeck’s Commanding Officer. Shamed, humiliated, crushed and nearly defeated, Woyzeck goes to the Commanding Officer who soundly beats him. Woyzeck, now thoroughly without hope, goes AWOL, kills Marie and the baby and then himself. Cheerful stuff.

(more after the jump)

And while one can imagine many turgid productions done as period pieces heavy-handedly beating you over the head with the “birth of modern man” theme, this staging by director Daniel Kramer – which has been called a “high-octane, rock-and-roll” version – is visceral, lively and intense. Clocking in at just over two hours with no intermission, it could have seemed like an endurance contest (and I’m sure there are those who will find it that way, it is not everybody’s cup of tea) but mostly he keeps you in rapt attention as the play makes its inexorable way to total disaster.

Kramer uses the space at St. Ann’s well – the whole thing is opened up with only a few spare set pieces: a jukebox, a huge clock with no hands, a spinning window frame downstage and upstage a “forest” of maybe a dozen huge logs suspended vertically from the ceiling. The costumes are a jumble of different times and places, the soundtrack is mostly Elvis with some Dolly Parton and other popular songs thrown in. (The washerwoman sequence set to “9 to 5” is both hilarious and depressing).

I suppose I’m getting to review territory here, and since we try not to do reviews I won’t go into too much more detail. Basically I was stunned not only by how prescient Buchner was, but how this production contextualized the work so that it seemed incredibly relevant and of-the-moment. If I didn’t know it was written in 1837 I could easily have thought it was a contemporary playwright. You can feel Buchner’s rage about the brutality of the class system and the arrogance of privilege; you don’t just nod your head and go “ah, existentalism”, you feel the deep pain and bewilderment of being trapped in a world that no longer makes sense. After the show I said to a friend that the play is like the anguished cry of the man who found God’s dead body in a back alley and had to tell everyone the bad news.

And while all the actors do a great job with fine performances all around, we gotta give a shout-out to Ed Hogg who fairly rips the stage apart as Woyzeck. He just captures it, with great attention to detail. He is physically adventurous while being meticulous and grounded, he captures both the human pathos and the cosmic pain and holds it up for you to see. Of the many striking moments in the production, one in particular stuck with me as being particularly resonant.

The commanding officer/drum major, played by David Harewood, beats the hell out of Woyzeck in a gracefully choreographed fight sequence set to an Elvis Presley tune. You know how it is going to turn out from the very beginning – Woyzeck is slight, pale, of modest height, The Drum Major is tall, dark, muscled and powerful. He can have whatever he wants and he takes it, he will always be victorious. He soundly crushes Woyzeck and as the Elvis tune ends he takes center stage. He steps into the spotlight, holds his hands in the air like Elvis in concert as both the recorded and actual audiences applaud his bravura performance. As the applause fades we see Woyzeck in a crumpled heap upstage, thoroughly crushed. He limply raises his hand and moans, “Bravo. Violence.”


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