A revival of a production first shown in 1992, Handspring Puppet Company’s Woyzeck on the Highveld takes the story of Büchner’s German soldier and transports it to 1950s Johannesburg.
Best known for its award-winning work on War Horse, the company here brings its skills to bear on this classic tale of jealousy, murder and alienation, and it is a powerful, if not flawless, production. A mixture of puppetry, animation and live action (in the form of Mncedisi Shabangu’s charismatic but sinister Barker), the show perfectly captures the dismal grind of industrialised poverty.
The deceptively simple animation is used cleverly to complement the action: sometimes as mere scenery, sometimes to add insight into the character’s thoughts or feelings, occasionally actually illustrating what is happening just offstage. Given the pedigree of the performers, it’s unsurprising that the puppetry is superb, and the fact that you can actually see the puppeteers – their own faces mirroring the emotions of the puppets – makes them more, rather than less, engaging. Mncendisi Shabangu skilfully juggles a raft of minor characters, while Hamilton Dhlamini brings a suitable world-weariness to Woyzeck himself; as his doomed lover Maria, Busi Zokufa combines an earthy sensuality with the frustrations of a mother ground down by the realities of her existence. Playing the detached middle class observers the Captain and the Doctor, Nkosinathi Gaar and Adrian Kohler respectively are often funny but never less than creepy. Underscoring the action is Steve Cooks and Edward Jordan’s emotive music, which recalls nothing to mind so much as a South African Tom Waits, offering a grizzled lament to a miserable life.
Director William Kentridge often favours impressionism over narrative, and while this makes the piece affecting, it also undermines the dramatic urgency, and occasionally I found it hard to follow what was going on. An interlude with a performing rhinoceros – obviously tortured into its circus-style tricks – is expertly done and effective, and while it offers a clear and moving testimony to the cruelty men are capable of that obviously parallels the casual dehumanisation of Woyzeck’s world, it adds little to a plot that already feels thinly stretched even over a scant 90 minutes. But in the end it is not the story that stays with you – it is not the drama of murder that is the true tragedy, more the humdrum reality of lives lived and lost in a world that barely notices. It is this which Handspring brilliantly evokes, and it is this which will haunt you long after you have left the theatre.