Monday, June 5, 2017

Woyzeck, Salomé, Horror: A Panoply of Theatrical Styles

John Boyega and Sarah Greene in Woyzeck at London's Old Vic. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Modernism in the theatre is dated from 1879, the year Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, so Woyzeck, discovered, unfinished, after its author Georg Büchner’s death in 1837 (at twenty-three, from typhus), is a startling anomaly that theatre historians have never been able to account for. Inspired by newspaper accounts of a Leipzig wigmaker who was executed for murdering his lover, Woyzeck is the brutal, unadorned tragedy of the social oppression of an ordinary man. The soldier Woyzeck, desperate for money to support his girlfriend Marie and their child, performs menial jobs for his captain and signs up for medical experiments that eat away at his brain; when Marie cheats on him with a handsome drum major, he stabs her to death. Büchner’s point of view is that his protagonist, used by the Captain and the Doctor and treated like dirt, is the victim of society and particularly of the military life that enslaves and dehumanizes the common recruit. (The Catholic Church, too, which condemns them for having a child out of wedlock, ranks among Woyzeck’s oppressors; spiritually as well as economically he is on society’s bottom rung.) Büchner wrote during the age of romanticism. (The earliest of his three plays, Danton’s Death, set during the French Revolution, is certainly a romantic drama.) Romanticism in both drama and literature celebrated the misfit, the rebel, the outcast, like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but Woyzeck, spat upon and abandoned to an ignominious fate, is as much a modernist creation as the slum dwellers in Gorky’s turn-of-the-century The Lower Depths. Moreover, as world theatre was moving closer and closer to realism, Woyzeck anticipated expressionism, the first of the anti-realist movements. In the second half of the play Büchner employs distortion to suggest how his protagonist’s encroaching madness alters his perception.

The play is strong meat, and the new production at London’s Old Vic, directed by Joe Murphy from a new version of the script by Jack Thorne, hews to Büchner’s vision. (Thorne is a high-profile playwright in London right now, since his Harry Potter and the Cursed Child won last year’s Olivier Award for best new play.) This Woyzeck is set in Germany in the last decade of the Cold War; the title character (played by John Boyega of Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is stationed at the East German border, where the citizens’ lack of freedom is presented in ironic counterpoint to Woyzeck, who is supposedly free but in fact is not. What happens to him in the course of the play – the extremes to which his poverty leads him (he and Marie live in a stinking apartment above a Muslim butcher shop) – are only part of his burden; he’s haunted by childhood memories of being forced to watch his mother, a prostitute, having sex with one of her johns, and he suffers from PTSD, having had a breakdown during his last posting, in Belfast. The insensitive treatment he receives at the hands of Captain Thompson (Steffan Rhodri), the German doctor (Darrell D’Silva), the captain’s high-born wife Maggie (Nancy Carroll) and finally his buddy Andrews (Ben Batt), who is sleeping with the captain’s wife but lusts after Marie (Sarah Greene), derives from their shared view that this man who couldn’t take the violence he saw in Northern Ireland must be, in Thompson’s words, “missing a beat.” Naturally, we’re meant to interpret his response as a sign of the kind of sensitivity that military life wants to stamp out; Marie, whom he met in Belfast, reports that her mother warned her to stay away from soldiers because they’re “trained to damage,” but she insisted that her soldier was different from the others. In the course of the first act Woyzeck, who no longer has a sense of his own identity, repeatedly asks for help but gets none. It’s a sign of his psychic deterioration that in the second act he reverses himself and insists that he doesn’t need anybody’s help and that he knows exactly who he is, while Marie repeatedly claims that he’s not acting like himself. In this version of the play Marie rejects Andrews’ advances but in a feverish vision Woyzeck thinks he sees her in bed with him. It’s really Maggie he’s having sex with – Woyzeck has been letting his friend use his bed for their assignations. And sometimes in his fantasies Woyzeck confuses Maggie, whose brazen sexual behavior with Andrews has a distinctly Lady Chatterley’s Lover quality, with his mother (Carroll plays them both), who died when he was only twelve and had been in child care since he was four.

Thorne’s major alteration to Büchner’s text is to make it less sociological and more psychological, and that’s a challenge for Boyega, because there’s a flatness to the everyman conception of the character that Thorne has lifted from the original. In the first act Boyega really struggles to get beyond that flatness; it isn’t until act two, when the play throws the actor the most curve balls, that he begins to emerge. (He’s at his best in the murder scene.) Greene is excellent throughout, maintaining a delicate balance between Marie’s forthrightness and sexual confidence and her appreciation for her lover’s sweet, playful side – the element that also brings out her vulnerability. In the original Marie is sad and pathetic, underwritten as a dramatic creation. Thorne has filled her out, and Greene completes the job for him. The production also showcases fine work by Batt and Carroll, whose knife’s-edge transitions between Maggie and Woyzeck’s mother are notably accomplished.

Neil Austin’s expressionistic lighting is very effective and Tom Scutt has designed a striking semi-abstract set, though he doesn’t follow through with the imagery of the abattoir that’s meant to link up with both the violence in Woyzeck’s past and present and, I assume, the idea that he himself is being treated like a piece of meat. Murphy’s staging is rather blocky in act one but more imaginative in act two, though not all of the episodes in the expressionistic second act are equally successful. Thorne has thrown in a Brechtian interlude, a regimental marching song performed by Rhodri’s Captain Thompson, that doesn’t add anything. (And I do mean Brechtian: its origins are in A Man’s a Man and The Threepenny Opera.) But even when it doesn’t work, this Woyzeck is always something to watch. And it’s often unsettling and exciting.

Ilan Evans and Matthew Tennyson, in rehearsal for Salomé. (Photo: Richard Lakos © RSC)

Considering that all of Oscar Wilde’s other plays – at least, the ones that actually get produced – are high comedies, Salomé, which he wrote in one act in 1891, is a curio. It’s a symbolist tragedy on a Biblical subject, and he wrote it in French, translating it three years later for publication, when it was issued in an edition with marvelous art nouveau drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. (The notion of writing it in French reflects the influence of the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, the first major symbolist playwright.) The play is rather fascinating, but since the best thing about it is Beardsley’s illustrations, performances of it are infrequent. Al Pacino co-starred in one in New York twenty-five years ago, with Sheryl Lee in the title role, and he produced a movie version in 2013 with Jessica Chastain (which I haven’t seen). That’s the last time I remember hearing about a professional mounting of the play until this summer, when two versions are playing simultaneously in London, one (revised) at the National Theatre and one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. It’s the second one I managed to catch, in previews.

And it’s ridiculous. The play is about illicit desire – the tetrarch Herod’s for his stepdaughter Salomé, the Young Syrian’s, also for Salomé (he’s Herod’s captain of the guard), and Salomé’s for the imprisoned prophet Iokanaan, all of which end in tragedy – and we all know that Wilde was sent to jail for sodomy, so it doesn’t take a very deep reading to figure out the subtext. But the director Owen Horsley has opted to put the subtext front and center by casting a man in drag, Matthew Tennyson, as Salomé, by making the friendship between the Young Syrian (Assad Zaman) and one of the other soldiers (Robert Ginty) clearly homoerotic, by turning Iokanaan (Gavin Fowler) into a hunky, begrimed dude wearing only shorts, and by throwing in some gay-themed rock songs by Perfume Genius (performed by Ilan Evans). The climax of the play is the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils, which Salomé executes for the pleasure of Herod (Matthew Pidgeon), removing one veil after another; his lust to see her naked is so pressing that he swears an oath to give her anything she desires up to one-half of his kingdom as payment. But what she demands – the head of Iokanaan, so she can kiss the dead mouth of the man who was too holy to let her do so while he was still alive – is so shocking a defilement that the play ends with Herod’s sentencing her, too, to death. In Horsley’s production there’s only one veil, and since Tennyson’s no dancer and Polly Burnett’s choreography isn’t very erotic, the dance, which ends with Tennyson stepping out of his undershorts, wiggling a little, and then stepping right back into them, is a singular embarrassment.

The show, clocking in at ninety-five minutes, feels interminable, and not just because the text is so repetitive. (Salomé must ask Herod for Iokanaan’s head at least half a dozen times; sitting miserably in one of the Swan Theatre’s uncomfortable seats, I had to restrain myself from crying out, “Give her the fucking head already, so we can all go home.”) Except for Zaman, who finds both the lyricism and the feeling in the Young Syrian’s lines, I didn’t like a single actor on the stage, including Suzanne Burden as Salomé’s mother Herodias, who doesn’t like the way Herod is looking at her daughter and tries to forbid her to dance for him but then is gleeful when she asks for her compensation because the prophet has been excoriating Herodias from his cell as corrupt. I do think the set by Bretta Gerecke, which is filled with weirdly shaped ladders and dominated by a huge, crinkly-tin-foil moon (lit by Kristina Hjelm in a range of colors), is cool, though those ladders don’t appear to mean anything. (They serve a purpose: they give the performers something to climb on.) I’m not sure if this Salomé is the silliest thing on the boards this season, but it’s a contender.

A scene from Jakop Ahlbom's Horror. (Photo: Sanne Peper)

Finally: surrealism. The eighty-minute dance piece Horror, conceived and directed by the Swedish choreographer Jakop Ahlbom and performed by his company (currently at the Peacock Theatre, now a second space for Sadler’s Wells), is an ingenious collage of horror-movie tropes. Though the playbill lists several specific sources, most of the episodes and images replay ideas that pop up repeatedly in movies, like the confined space that is a locus for murders (and other atrocities) that recur endlessly over time with long-dead victims and perpetrators. The most famous version of that scenario is probably The Shining, but of course it goes back to every haunted-house picture from James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) onward. Ahlbom includes mesmerism, metamorphosis, zombies, döppelgangers, sadistic parents (and the revenge of abused children), sexual repression, sex as cannibalism, the nightmare wedding night, body parts with minds of their own, mirror imagery, and – borrowed from a whole cycle of Japanese films – characters who appear in videos and have the power to march out of them into the three-dimensional world. Presented in this way and enacted by stunningly gifted dancers, these familiar tropes take on a fascinating abstract quality. The dancers (twelve are listed in the playbill but only eight appear at any given time) seem to be able to do pretty much anything with their bodies, including turning them into elastic or plasticine, crawling upside down or even (apparently) changing shape. The piece relies on some jaw-dropping magic-show effects, and the inhuman flexibility of the cast feels like part of the magic. The marvelous set, a kind of three-ring playing area, is by Ahlbom and Douwe Hibma; Yuri Schreuders designed the lighting.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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