Old Vic, runs from 15th May to 24th June 2017
This is a raw, edgy tragedy; hauntingly beautiful and viscerally portrayed with adept brilliance.
The performances had the audience roaring in laughter with its dark, rough, and lovingly interpersonal humour and frozen in utter silence during intense moments of sadness, existentialism, and violence.
Jack Thorne has taken this 180 year old play and skillfully made it feel so current, dealing with contemporary issues, yet setting it in Berlin of 1981. The issues are ones that people face all the time; dealing with love, relationships, childhood trauma, battlefield trauma, hollow help, and poverty.
The term ‘working poor’ was in my mind throughout, as was PTSD and child abuse. It feels so relevant, especially the exploration of the mental state of the main character and the complex and multi-faceted experiences that contribute to one’s state of well being and mental stability.
As you walked into the play, there was a warning about bad language, nudity, violence and loud noises, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the unabashed performance that they would be viewing.
The play starts with a beautifully poetic introduction where we see a young Woyzeck, and in the smoky and obscured background, his mother.
Then we meet a frolicking and playful Frank Woyzeck and his loving and joyous partner Marie. Frank Woyzeck, pronounced Voy-Tzeck, is a British soldier, a Dragoon on sentry duty at check point at the Wall in Berlin, and he is played by John Boyega of Star Wars fame, while his partner Marie is played by Olivier and Tony-nominated actress Sarah Greene. Without doubt, the key to the play was the overall performances, but especially the dynamic between these two. Marie, an Irish Catholic girl, has moved with Frank and their child to Berlin. They are living in rented off-barracks accommodation, a dreadful place above an abattoir, as they are not married.
Wall panels that move quickly into place, create the different spaces that we see the performance take place in, these walls give a feeling of the Berlin Wall, while neatly giving a bleakness and at later stages malevolence to the flat walls above the abattoir.
Their interaction and, indeed, humour and love is fabulous. The conversation at the beginning is so wonderfully naughty and fun, familiarity between lovers.. Throughout the play, the portrayal of Marie by Sarah Greene is just perfect. The sharply accurate Northern Irish accent and phrasing was perfect, her ability to tell a joke but also allow it it to cut to the bone of their issues was skilled, her quick-tongued responses and realistic approach adept, her ability to portray a fear of love, the breakdown of love and utter helplessness in the face of something she cannot truly unpack or understand for there is no understanding the mental state at times, was very down-to-earth.
The intimacy between Marie and Frank was bared for all to see; it brought the whole audience on their journey. At one stage, they sat on the edge of the stage, looking off into the distance, at all times impeccable composure and balance, this intimacy was all the more poignant at later stages when brutality, anger and violence were at hand. We had come to know these two well, know that they were truly in love with one another, although fighting to make things better despite so much going against them, and the best of intentions resulting in unfair, inhuman and ultimately untenable pressure on their relationship.
Likewise, the other characters, Frank’s only friend and fellow soldier, Andrews, his soldiering humour and reliance on promiscuity and alcohol to see him through, and in many regards lack of human loyalty to his friend, was also well played. Captain Thompson and his wife Maggie Thompson proficiently played the well-to-do, all-talk, no-action, officer class, unwilling to help despite being asked, while professing the desire to help or knowing that this is what is expected. Captain Thompson’s response of ignoring Frank’s money problem when he bravely raises it, and then when challenged gently by Frank who is unsure, responds that money is ‘vulgar’, was fabulous. Thompson positioning Frank in a desperate place after having the courage to address his problem. Likewise, when Marie brought it up, Maggie puts her to work raising funds, to make Maggie look good, instead of actually helping a woman with a child in state of distress. The desperate situation of no concern, just an annoyance, before using Maggie to her own devices, and indeed, absolutely over stepping hospitality and kindness, showing herself for the vain user that she is.
Facing problems with no solution, Frank signs up to become a medical guinea pig and undergo a drug trial for a German doctor, one who has not really got Frank’s interests to heart. And so further mental strains attack Frank, attack what is a strong mind, but so precarious with so much to deal with, now facing a descent and level of fragility that no one can help with.
There were little, not so much tricks, but moments, that I really liked, like how Frank agrees with whatever his captain says, but gets so upset by being called thick. The use of coarse and vulgar language got a lot of laughter, I expect that is because in some ways the audience was slightly surprised and shocked. Indeed, the nakedness of Andrews as he tries to compromise Marie and we see him test her loyalty surprised the audience, but not so much as the scene with Frank and his mother.
Belfast gets mentioned a number of times. Frank had something occur there, something traumatic. The talk is of him being found after being thought missing, but there is a lovely mystery here for the audience. What actually happened in Northern Ireland, which in Nineteen Eighty One was a place utterly hostile to British Soldiers, where they were targets while on patrol, housed in barracks, flown into remote places by helicopter, bombed, shot at, spat upon, is unclear and so the outcome of his tour, to end up with a beautiful and loving Catholic girl like Marie, whose mother would have nothing to do with her because of this romance, but still she left with Frank, is the obverse to whatever trauma he suffered.
That a battlefield post traumatic stress disorder makes up part of his psyche is unquestionable, but it pales in comparison to elements of his childhood, which unfold with young actors playing the part of Frank and the same actress who plays Maggie Thompson playing the part of his mother, although unbeknown to the audience until the end.
Frank’s upbringing, his military trauma in Belfast, the current situation – living above a slaughterhouse, stinking of meat, and too hot, short of cash and then his enlisting in medical experiments, which take their toll – all create a dreadful mental cocktail that help the descent into the unhinging of his mind.
References to the Empire and then a whole scene where Captain Thompson is wearing a Red Coat uniform and white Pith Helmet while flying the flag, cements for the audience the thinking and metaphorical attitude behind this character, possibly from Frank’s perspective
There were many scenes that felt purposely uncomfortable, upon reflection, and this was dealt with very well. Everything was a contingent part of the story; all of it was important to try and gain an understanding of the characters. But it was also an opening; one felt closer, especially to Marie and Frank, and therefore more impacted by their situation and the spiral doomed collision they were joined in, as Frank fell into a dreadfully low emotional and mental state.
It was brilliance.
This performance is not what I had expected from John Boyega. I had wondered how a Star Wars actor would transfer to this complex story, full of emotion and mental trauma, a demanding piece, and I was incredibly impressed. His performance was impeccable, bringing me to a current and very real dilemma. I felt for him, his anger was palpable, his frustrations and upset, his adoration and love, his inability to come to terms with an overload of mental stresses, that rationally seemed impossible to be able to deal with were all thrown at the audience in a raw performance that was polished but naked for us to see. Sarah Greene likewise was incredible, her part is considerably enhanced from that of other previous incarnations of the play, and so to see her unleashed and having such a vital part, meant her performance had to match Boyega’s and it did, a wonderful performance.
I hope Boyega and Greene find future parts as compelling and fascinating, I would adore to see Boyega play Henry V, Coriolanus and especially Richard III and I imagine that Greene can turn her hand to any part but would love to see her in lead roles, a blight on the theatre and entertainment industry that there are not more such roles.
The music felt perfect, there were very heavy and industrial progressive rock sounds and then German sounding synth electronic and then a choreographed army song that got all the players marching and singing in a chaotic and yet nicely effective way, with Frank isolated, panicked and unsure of what was going on.
This is not a play for the light-hearted and should leave the viewer absolutely stirred and contemplative, reflective on the ability and capacity of any human mind, and compassionate and considerate of the modern disease that is poverty and the inability to escape it and where desperation can lead. Jack Thorne and the whole team did a phenomenal job.