WOYZECK ON THE HIGHVELD
Based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner.
Barbican Centre (Silk Street Theatre) Silk Street EC2Y 8DS To 10 September.
Tue-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3pm.
TICKETS: 0844 243 0785.
then Tour to 12 November 2011.
Runs 1hr 20min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 6 September.
The play inspires some fine invention, but then gets in the way.
Though it was unfinished when he died in 1837, in his mid-twenties, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck has been identified as a start-point for modern drama. Its fragmentary nature (the scenes could be presented in almost any order) helps create a sense of displacement and disconnectedness which chimes with modern sensibilities.
Certainly with that of South African artist and animator William Kentridge, who set his Woyzeck in 1992, during apartheid’s final days, among the gold and diamond mines of the Highveld (a region including such cities as Johannesburg and Pretoria). It provides an industrial background suited to Kentridge’s charcoal images, still and moving, through which Woyzeck trudges, and where his friend Andries is a street-busker.
Woyzeck remains the ultimate among put-upons. His wife’s unfaithful, he’s surrounded by more confident males, treated like an animal, and subjected to a humiliating medical experiment allowing him to eat only peas. Originally caught at the bottom of army ranks, here he becomes a miner. And a puppet. For the show, originally directed by Kentridge, now revived by Luc de Wit, comes from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
Famous for War Horse, here they have a somewhat smaller rhino, taught tricks such as counting, making it a superior being to Woyzeck. His puppet’s features are ever-troubled – there’s a striking visual moment when the domineering Doctor stares in his face at close quarters, Woyzeck looking like a guilty child.
Screen images and puppet movement create a grey, troubled world, into which the red eruption of murder sounds strikingly. But individual scenes stand-out, rather than forming a continually coherent action. The puppeteers’ spoken words are detached from the figures, which could be fine as a means to create further alienation within Woyzeck’s world; except the lines are neither reported nor spoken convincingly in character. Instead, they hang in that grey edge-of-Brecht area which just seems poor acting.
So, despite the visual skill and originality, the result overall underwhelms, its inventive images let down by unconvincing narrative, just as its one non-puppet performer seems ill-integrated with the production’s style, making Woyzeck on the Highveld more a curiosity than a triumph.
Actor: Mncedisi Shabangu.
Puppeteers: Nkosinathi Gaar, Hamilton Dhlamini, Busi Zokufa, Adrian Kohler.
Director: Luc de Wit.
Designers: Adrian Kohler, William Kentridge.
Lighting: Wesley France.
Sound: Wilbert Schoubel.
Video editor: Thabo Nel.
Animation: William Kentridge.
Assistant animator: Erica Elk.