Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: Woyzeck in Winter
Misery Loves Company
Misery loves company in Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s “Woyzeck in Winter,” a case of two halves not making for an entirely successful whole. The halves in question being Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck (1837), and Franz Schubert’s also unfinished song cycle Winterreise (1828), adapted by Conall Morrison with lyrics by Stephen Clark. Both original works, comprised of 24 sections, share a dark, nihilistic bent, which richly informs Morrison's “Woyzeck in Winter.” If “Woyzeck In Winter” shows exemplary production values, a top class design team, and a cast and a director to die for, ultimately the whole isn’t up to the standards of its individual component parts. An often torturously long journey to an inevitable end, “Woyzeck In Winter” speaks best to the truly converted. Thankfully, for everyone else, the view is pretty spectacular.
Driven primarily by Büchner’s tale, “Woyzeck In Winter” follows the peasant solider, Woyzeck, and his relationship with Marie, a prostitute with whom he has fathered a child. Both are trying to raise the child together, but Woyzeck’s barbers salary isn’t exactly providing the high life. Something Marie is missing, longing for the excitement, the laughter, the dancing, and the attention. Catching the eye of the Drum Major, Marie begins a torrid affair. But in a world where virtue is prized above all else, in theory anyway, the heartbroken Woyzeck is going to have to act. Yet even though it’s men who humiliate him, piss on him, beat him up, and even sleep with his partner, it’s still the woman who is going to have to pay.
Looking at times, like Woyzeck The Musical, “Woyzeck in Winter” seems too reverent of its original sources in a manner that ultimately backfires. While Conor Linehan, playing live on stage, does outstanding work, his presence, and Schubert’s music, can make it seem to a contemporary audience like watching a broadly acted silent movie, complete with piano accompaniment, where someone has mistakenly recorded the cast. A movie whose language, and predictable story, are not all that compelling. Lyrics by Stephen Clark, after the poet Müller, also remain far too faithful to the original source, never quiet igniting on their own terms. Indeed, if the occasional use of contemporary language proves far more successful, it also serves to reinforce “Woyzeck In Winter’s” lyrically dated weaknesses, leaving you wishing “Woyzeck In Winter” has pursued this rich vein further. As a result, most songs begin to sound similar, becoming immediately forgettable. If frequently repeated phrases reinforce some thematic and symbolic elements, it’s the only real effective device in an otherwise problematic arrangement. Singing, too, is a mixed bag, with only Camille O’Sullivan and Rosaleen Linehan consistently finding the right range and emotional balance.
With Morrison’s adaptation dealing in symbolic characters, or stock types, there’s often not enough there to make any real connection. Consequently, what appears on stage borders on the pantomime, yet with none of its joy or its humour. Stephen Brennan’s Captain, and Barry McGovern’s Doctor, the latter looking like the love child of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, do exceptional work with what are essentially cartoonish stock characters, with little of the stock character’s archetypal power. As does Peter Coonan as the man’s man, The Drum Major, yet another recognizable stock character played in the broadest of strokes. Only Rosaleen Linehan’s exquisite Hurdy Gurdy Man, and Shane O’Reilly’s down to earth Andres, prove to be exceptions to the rule, with Linehan delighting as the symbolic figure, and O’Reilly making the recognisable Andres instantly relatable.
In contrast, an energetic Patrick O’Kane’s Woyzeck, a permanently flustered ball of stress, often struggles to engage for having few redeemable qualities from the get go. Maybe he has a mental health issue. Maybe he’s broken from hard work, heart break and humiliation. Maybe it’s because of his diet of peas. If it’s hard to know, it becomes harder to care as efforts to make him relatable, or understandable, come far too late. Camille O’Sullivan as Marie, a voluptuous, unrepentant sinner constantly seeking forgiveness while lusting after her hearts desires, is far more engaging, struggling with notions of religious virtue and earthly desire.
Visually, “Woyzeck in Winter” is a work of art in itself. Jamie Vartan’s stunning set, looking like a warehouse of discarded pianos, is an unqualified success. As is Paul Keogan’s superb lighting design, and Joan O’Clery’s costumes. Indeed, set, light, and costumes often prove to be far more compelling than either text or music, allowing Morrison to craft some stunning, visual images, such as O’Kane’s final nihilistic moment in the snow-drenched landscape.
Woyzeck, in particular, has proven to be a rewarding work for reviving and reimagining over the decades. Those fortunate enough to have seen Robert Wilson’s Woyzeck, with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, during the 2001 Dublin Theatre Festival, will recall how utterly spellbinding that experience was. “Woyzeck In Winter,” whatever its lofty aspirations, doesn’t deliver as well as it might have, often feeling dated. Yet, whatever its drawbacks, “Woyzeck In Winter” is most certainly a visually stunning production.
“Woyzeck In Winter” adapted by Conall Morrison from Büchner’s Woyzeck and Schubert’s Winterreise, lyrics by Stephen Clark, after Müller, produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 8th