Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.
In his little book “Why read classics?”, Italo Calvino remarked: “A classic is a text that has never finished saying what it has to say.” This is the key to understanding the relentless allure of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. As Alison Croggon has incisively observed, Woyzeck is the poster child for a masterpiece by error, a fragmentary, never completed text that eludes the reader, that leads nowhere, that’s all trails to wrong clues. Yet it is this openness that has kept Woyzeck current, allowed it to be stretched, pulled, read and re-read.
It seems to me that, in order to qualify for Calvino’s definition of the classic, a work of art needs to never quite add up to hundred percent, never achieve the satisfying closure of clarity and meaning; a part needs to remain loose, dark, inexplicable but somehow true. A small bit, irreducible to an explanation, fighting against interpretation of the rest of the work like a guerrilla sign. Like the leap towards realism that the Italian Renaissance achieved with sfumato, the haziness of detail; like the mysteriously evocative nexus, discovered by Bataille in The Story of the Eye, between the erotic imagination and those indelible memories, traumatic elementary images, on which, I quote, “the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them.” Impossible to pin down, wiggling out of its own conclusions, a classic makes the best use out of what Slavic languages call nedorečenost: the quality of not having finished what one started saying.
Certainly inspired by the French Revolution, that macabre social experiment that allowed for every hypothesis to be tested, Georg Büchner died young, fervent and revolutionary-minded, but before finding a way to outline any of his political programs and social solutions in literary terms. Woyzeck could be read as his attempt to develop some politically and psychologically radical ideas, thoughts that existed only in the embryonic form in the early nineteenth-century Germany: a plausible social anatomy of madness, a link between domestic violence and institutional violence, the questionable morality of class oppression. The utter strangeness of Büchner’s ideas, combined with the ferocity of the delivery, have reserved him a place in literary history as the forefather of expressionism (and literary sedition, but less commonly so). This may sound like an overstatement to the 2009 Melbourne kids, who get costume war dramas a dime a dozen but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Woyzeck was the first German literary text to feature lower-class protagonists (before there even was such a thing as working class!). Unfinished and ambitious, the play remains a tantalizing sketch, a light speculation rather than a thundering condemnation. Madness, murder, and medical experiment chime and collide, without ever agreeing on a cause and consequence.
While Woyzeck has become a stage classic that every town seems to be playing a version of, Australian mainstream theatre doesn’t see nearly enough of this play. Michael Kantor’s production, now playing at the Malthouse, is a buy-in, based on Gisli Őrn Gardarsson’s widely-toured musical adaptation for Vesturport Theatre. This production eschews the Icelandic acrobatics, the factory setting and the complex pop referencing so beloved by our European brethren (Marie appears in a Snow White-looking attire), and keeps the storyline edit and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s music. Whether that’s an improvement or not is hard to tell without having seen the Icelandic version. I admit I am intrigued: Vesturport seem to have toured the Anglosphere extensively, a rare feat for a European production. Yet aquariums and trapeze tricks do not quite Woyzeck make; Vesturport’s make-over sounds much too much like an attempt to energize this bone-dry play into a moist MTV vaudeville, a fury of excess. Rather, with its stop-start episodes, its hallucinatory slips and its slow build-up of betrayal, the story of Woyzeck is defined by the blocked, frustrated, supressed and excessively slow, uneven trickle of energy.
The Malthouse production keeps it tense and grinding: the bleakness is never relieved, the pacing never overly accelerated. Woyzeck’s breakdown is as slow and painful to watch as it would be to experience. It is a strangely satisfying, accurate production. Kantor’s signature insistence on kitsch and trash works wonders. Woyzeck has been moved to the contemporary war zone. The maddening effect is inscribed not into the banal churn of the institution and the upper classes’ thought terrorism, but into the whirlpool of war. And Kantor gets it very strangely right: war really does drive people insane, and it does it mainly through kitsch and through trash. War is an absolute assault on the senses, defined, like any mass hysteria, by the utter absence of silence, a relentless noise that smothers thought.
War also, let’s get this straight, works as a big conscription machine. Years before any war can commence are spent drumming up playground tunes, working up as many souls as possible into a murderous frenzy, which can only be achieved by playing to the lowest common denominator. Once the war starts, it is even more crucial to keep everyone amused, attuned, sharp – the whirlpool accelerates. Kitsch and trash, thus, are woven into the very fabric of war. Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.
The episodic state of the play is well-served by the insertion of music numbers, combining with Peter Corrigan’s set into a semi-abstract nightmare of hard form and vague emotion. The cast is thrillingly good, from the meandering wartime masculinity of Hamish Michael and Tim Rogers (a wondrous, visceral stage performer), to the off-key but intense Bojana Novakovic, and the humane, exasperated madness of Socratic Otto. Marco Chiappi, Merfyn Owen and Mitchell Butel as the trio of torturers are beautifully realised. As the characters descend into a partying, stuporous insanity, they become a collective oneiric carnival, with the harshness of detail and absolute absence of overarching structure that serves the play particularly well.
Less successful is the overall concept: by choosing to present it in the simple and consistent visual key of post 9/11 warfare and Mad Max proletarian hell, Kantor interprets the production into a corner. It may not be a circus extravaganza, yet, if it fails, it fails by being too solid, too defined in its message, unable to match the operettic, manic inconsistency of its literary model. The beauty of the play is in its openness, its nedorečenost. This production, defining itself in terms of the War on Terror, is not big enough to hold it all, and many bits are slipping out, unaccounted for. Unable to spread its imagination as wide and erratic as Büchner, it explores only some of the many meandering thoughts. The class friction, the obscene, smug and self-moralising brutalism of science and institution upon the lower-class man, as represented by the Doctor and the Captain, don’t quite survive in this Mickey Mouse madness. The semantic sprawl of Buchner instead morphs into a two-pronged commentary both on the horror of the lower-class warscape, and the upper-class decadence, with a very uneven result.
The great effectiveness and restraint of much of the production is undermined by some small, but resonatingly unfortunate choices. The first part kicks off as a solid failure: drum major the rock star, performers dancing in a Village People line…; there is a camp decadence to the entire thing that misses the mark. The Doctor, here represented by Mitchell Butel with Mickey Mouse ears and a skelleton T-shirt, enters signifying all sorts of confusing things at once, but none to do with institutional oppression, while Captain’s remarks whilst being shaved fizzle aimlessly, in the lack of class target. However, the production really takes off in the last two thirds, the lewd and quite sad seduction of Marie by the Marco Chiappi’s Drum Major and Woyzeck’s helpless frustration turning into jealousy, mostly because the collective madness is so well played that, by the time Woyzeck snaps, we are irritated enough by the colours, sounds and the gaudiness of the production we would gladly join in. The calmness that besets the play after Marie’s murder, Novakovic floating under the plexiglass platform/swamp like a strange fish (sensuous and grotesque as a Klimt painting) is, contrastingly, a harsh bubble of horror. Rarely, rarely does the finite futility of murder fill the stage with such accuracy.
Yet Kantor chooses to set Marie’s murder on a beige couch of a middle-class suite, a bubble of soulless comfort on a set dominated by sharp black angles. For as long as we choose to interpret his interpretation as that of sex, drugs and decadence, that’s fine, yet choosing to do so would strip the production of credibility. Removing the murder from aesthetic horror of the entire remaining play into a setting that’s faux calm, insincerely neutral and only a semblance of peace, it appears equivalent to the usual setting of Marie’s murder into a park. Yet some bit of logic fails to click. Woyzeck hangs mid-air, not quite making its point. What sofa?, where from?, why? Since this is only the first moment in the production where semantic friction grates hard, it doesn’t result in layering, but confusion, and no complexity is gained.
Later, committing the second and last faux pas, Tim closes the play by saying, The loveliest murder we’ve had in years. And he doesn’t say it with that bourgeois, decadent righteousness that would tie it back to the Captain’s shaving, the production doesn’t communicate a touch of awareness of how inappropriate this phrase is. He says it like an elegy, and kills whatever effect may have survived the sofa. Having played it just right for so long, Woyzeck ends on a false note. As a result, it is a very fine production, but unevenly intelligent.
Among the theatre commentators, there appears to be a solid division between the literary folk and the visually-minded: while most practitioners seem to fall among the eyesy, both playwrights and critics, significantly, appear to be verbally inclined: the disagreement between Alison and Martin over this production, looks like an exemplary case of the rift between the richness of the text (both its literary and historical merit), and the relative poverty of the images, which in this case illustrate and fill the narrative holes with syrupy consistency, but do not launch a world of their own. As an insider to war, but an outsider to the world of televised conflict, I cannot judge the effect of the stage images on the audience, which seems to me the most problematic side of this type of production. To recycle and reference, in this context, is to push emotional buttons that may lead, quite the contrary, to disaffected boredom. What this Woyzeck depicts, in the spectrum between the intense misery of the poor and banal self-destruction of the rich, is hard to tell.
Ultimately, Woyzeck is a strangely satisfying production, yet never more than the sum of its parts. While it is possible to justify every false step it makes by some sign in the text, the interpretative tradition or pop imagery, it remains a solid illustration of the text, rather than a theatrically independent work of sheer brilliance. It adds nothing, either visually or philosophically. It depicts some solid madness. Whether it points to the right causes for this madness, whether it tries to at all, and even whether it ought to, are all points up for discussion.
Woyzeck. By Georg Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, February 4-28.