A young couple with a new baby are struggling to survive. Every tiny part of the society they exist in is weighted against them. The wife juggles the childcare with a repetitive meaningless job that involves pestering local residents. The husband sees no other way to make the extra money they need than to participate in a hugely risky scheme. Their relationship cracks; he cracks; even the walls surrounding them fragment and splinter.
Above is a basic plot summary of Jack Thorne’s new version of Woyzeck. It is also one that would apply almost equally to Franz Xaver Kroetz’s The Nest, performed just down the road at the Young Vic in autumn 2016, using a new translation by Conor McPherson. Strip away the military setting, the woozy part-application of psychoanalysis and the imposing, dreamscape set design, and the two productions could easily be brothers of one another. Thorne’s message – like Kroetz’s – is that desperate people do desperate things. And they become desperate because the rotten class system they are trapped in erodes their very bodies and minds until the ‘something’ that has to give, gives.
Unfortunately, the comparison between the two productions doesn’t stop at narrative and message. Similarly to The Nest, Thorne’s Woyzeck is compromised by a lack of subtlety. Its depiction of a soldier suffering from PTSD, childhood trauma and poverty is clear to the point of potentially patronising the audience. It’s one of those productions that you feel could benefit from having more faith in those watching to receive the message and more faith in itself to deliver it.
And by rights it should have plenty of the latter because, as a whole, it has several excellent elements. The foremost of these is John Boyega in the title role. His gradual-then-rapid transition from sweetly teasing new father to fraught, agonised mania is more than enough to elicit the necessary sympathy from those watching. Even in the final, awful moment when he wraps his hands around his wife’s neck, the prevailing mood is one of fatalistic sadness rather than anger at him for what he is doing. We know he does not really mean to be doing it.
Tom Scutt’s set design is similarly effective. Cuboid chunks descend on the stage like soldiers in formation. As with The Wall (their capitals, not mine) in Akram Khan’s Giselle, the physical structures continually threaten to crush the performers beneath it. The repeated use of these walls moving in and out, up and down over the course of the play neatly visualises the feeling that the forces Woyzeck is up against are relentless. They also suggest that this story is just one among many, many others all playing out the same drumbeat, all about people fighting the same monolithic partitions.
However, this same level of starkness in other parts of the play lessens its believability. Arguably the army setting exacerbates the class divisions between characters, but Steffan Rhodri as Captain Thompson and Nancy Carroll as his wife, Maggie, perform “posh” in a manner that feels more suited to the 1880s than the 1980s. Her accent at times is reminiscent of the early clips used in language studies to demonstrate how the Queen’s accent has shifted from the 1950s to now. When you’re cutting more glass than her Maj, it’s probably time to dial it back just a little. Similarly, when the Irish Catholic Marie (Sarah Greene) starts talking about the Pope, the line dividing character and caricature starts to unhelpfully blur. More importantly, the broadness of the characters – the brusque captain, his wife who likes ‘a bit of rough’ and the tattooed soldier Andrews (Ben Batt) with his ‘lad’ humour – makes it harder to emotionally invest in the story.
That the final scene is able to convey so much power despite the more negative aspects of the production is nothing but a testament to Boyega’s standout performance. Somewhere in the space between his physically aggressive outbursts and his obsessive pleas of love lies what I believe Thorne was trying to convey with his rewriting of Georg Büchner’s text. Instead of judging an individual’s behaviour, the questions are all aimed at the society surrounding them and, most of all, its failings. It’s the same question, essentially, as Gary Owen asks at the end of Killology: “And how is that fair?”
Woyzeck is on until 24 June 2017 at the Old Vic. Click here for more details.