What more can be said about Woyzeck, the penniless soldier who murdered his lover? Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, which premiered in 1913, has tempted many to fill in the blanks. Add to the list Conall Morrison, whose new music-theatre adaptation exchanges a war-torn landscape for an immense terrain of gutted pianos. This striking set design works as a portal into Woyzeck’s inner turmoil, ransacked of all beauty, and a mind ravaged by illness.
This ambitious co-production by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival suspects a bond between Büchner’s tragedy and the song cycle Winterreise, first performed in 1827 and composed by Franz Schubert as he lay dying from neurosyphilis. Morrison seizes the opportunity to play the drama alongside Schubert’s chilling piano melodies, thrillingly jabbed at by musical director Conor Linehan, as snow proceeds to fall prettily from above. Winter is coming.
With songs, we’d expect this to reach new depths. Patrick O’Kane’s troubled Woyzeck is put on the receiving end of bullying ballads from the likes of Shane O’Reilly’s tactless peer Andres and Stephen Brennan’s moralising Captain, as if the songs were to tear strips. Central figures are absorbing in intimate and confessional songs. Despite the wealth of devices available, though, there’s little elaboration of the tale. Camille O’Sullivan makes Marie, Woyzeck’s lover, an empowering nihilist (“The road I must travel/No one has returned”) but the adaptation soon passes this off, settling instead for a woman gripped by agonising remorse after her affair with the Drum Major (a hot-headed Peter Keenan).
While Jamie Vartan’s marvellous set folds artistic expression into abstract displays of poverty, it runs the risk of a more superficial suggestion: a performance obsessed with its own artifice. Adding up the references (there’s even a flash of Brennan and Barry McGovern in their past lives as Beckettian tramps, since fallen in with a crowd), there seems to be little gained from putting Woyzeck in Winterreise. The production has the cloying effect of several ciphers, dramatic and musical, saying the exact same thing at once.
It at least lends pith to Woyzeck’s murderous act, however, not motivated by overwhelming jealousy but coming from an undiagnosed sickness. This is a surreal portrayal of a mind dispossessed, with O’Kane stumbling through the gallery by the end like the Phantom of the Opera. It’s only in rare moments – including those of haunting song by Rosaleen Linehan’s Hurdy-Gurdy Man – that we get something elemental: a blast of bitter wilderness.
Woyzeck in Winter is at Galway International Arts Festival until July 23rd. For more details, click here.