Woyzeck at the Old Vic is a clever, if not entirely successful, attempt to re-conceive a classic tragedy of the working class.
Returning to the stage after finding international success as Star War’s rogue stormtrooper Finn, John Boyega gives a strong performance as the troubled title character. Stationed in Berlin in 1981, Woyzeck is a British soldier patrolling the border with the East. From his previous tour – policing the Troubles in Northern Ireland – he has brought with him his girlfriend, their baby, and ill-defined PTSD.
The original Woyzeck, by 19th century German playwright Georg Büchner, was unfinished when the author died, aged just 23. This new version, by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scribe Jack Thorne is patchy, and seems to work best when it strays furthest from the source material. Some elements are brilliant, like the naturalistic dialogue (particularly the squaddie’s banter), the way that the historical setting is organically reinforced by references to contemporaneous events, and the expanded role for Woyzeck’s partner, Marie, which remakes her as not only as a properly realised character, but a foil for the protagonist.
The real problem is the overarching theme. Plays that depict the working classes in this way – saying things like "life is bad, and it gets worse" – have become so common that even an inventive repackaging of a work that once might have been truly innovative now seems like so much more of the same.
The casting of a black actor in the role of Woyzeck encourages direct comparisons with Othello, and the strain of jealousy becomes increasingly prominent as the story unfolds, but whether it is poverty or possessiveness that drives Woyzeck – or more exotic possibilities such as combat trauma, drug-induced psychosis, or an oedipal complex – his actions are less interesting than those of his supporting cast: Andrews (Ben Batt), Woyzeck’s puckish comrade and Maggie (Nancy Carroll), his commanding officer’s imperious, thrill-seeking wife, both convey far greater complexity with far less stage time.
Woyzeck’s final line is “I don’t know why I did anything.” Büchner's play, such as it was, invited the audience to speculate, but Thorne's overburdens them with suggestions; too many and too diffuse to draw satisfying conclusions.