For a test of a young man’s talent in the fast-paced, cut-throat world of modern celebrity, the choice of Finn, the first black Stormtrooper in a hallowed, very white, 40 year old franchise, as a young actor’s blockbuster debut could have back-fired spectacularly. It is perhaps testament to everyone’s faith in John Boyega’s abilities. But, ability doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever work in showbiz again. However, it worked. Not only was Star Wars VIII: The Force Awakens (2015) good, Boyega was fantastic, unveiling a heretofore untested comedic flair, convincing American accent and a great running ability – hugely important in the early stages of megastars like Mel Gibson and Will Smith.
To then choose Woyzeck at such a coveted venue as the Old Vic for his debut starring stage role seems a little like screaming silently that Boyega isn’t any one trick pony. Written by Georg Büchner, Woyzeck remained uncompleted at the time of his death in 1837. Still, it premiered in 1913 and has since become one of the most performed and influential plays in the German theatre repertory. It has been called a ‘working class’ tragedy and a portrayal of the ‘perennial tragedy of human jealousy’. The play is based on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a wigmaker who became a soldier, co-habited with widow Christiane Woost, and was later publicly beheaded for a pivotal moment in 1821 when tragedy struck. This is not that story.
Following a broadly similar outline, this dramatisation by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – TBB review here) is set at the Berlin Wall in 1981. John Boyega is illiterate squaddie, Private Woycek, who lives off-base over a pungent Halal butchers with Marie (Sarah Greene) and their illegitimate baby. He is haunted by his orphaned past and a previous tour in Belfast and has only one friend, Private Andrews (an excellent, and very ripped, Ben Batt) with whom he regularly patrols. Marie has been disowned by her Catholic community and has followed Woyzeck to Germany on his invitation, but knows nobody.
Totally consumed with love for Marie, but also haunted by his childhood, Woyzeck wants desperately to provide for his family, and not just live hand-to-mouth. He tries to earn the extra money they need to move to a decent home in various ways – performing menial jobs for the snobby squad Captain Thompson (Steffan Rhodri), favours for the sexually voracious, snobby Captain’s wife Maggie (Nancy Carroll) and, eventually, taking part in questionable medical hormone experiments conducted by Dr. Martens (Darrell D’Silva). As a result of his past, having to spend so much time in the company of these bitingly condescending people who take every opportunity to belittle him, compounded by his inability to rise above his impoverished state, plus the drugs and behaviours imposed on him by the doctor, Woyzeck mental health begins to break down. Meanwhile, Marie subject to similar psychological trials by Maggie and Andrews, is coping only slightly better with their poverty, and is trying to deal with a baby and a slowly deteriorating Woyzeck. Tragedy ensues.
Boyega handles himself incredibly well, given that Thorne has taken a play that was already ahead of its time and, by all accounts, has replaced the space the playwright gave the audience to ‘fill in the blanks’ with a great deal more psychological pressure. Büchner’s original is considered an expressionist masterpiece, but Thorne’s interpretation is drastically revised and overlaid with excessive developments and too little transition. The result is a choppy, staccato story (a familiar feeling, somehow), through which the cast do well to maintain audience empathy. This is particularly true of Boyega, who remains compelling throughout his transformation from pensive loner to unbalanced calamity, despite his unfortunately repetitive, unrevealing dialogue.
Rather than giving any clue as to what transpired in Belfast (aside from meeting Marie and conceiving a child), Thorne introduces a series of almost Oedipal dream/hallucinogenic sequences, which the play really could have done without, but which do give young actors Carlo Braithwaite, Reuel Guzman and Cyrus Odukele a chance to tread such historic boards as young Woycek. Its run-time is not overly long at 2 hours and 20 minutes plus 20 minute interval. Yet, the slow initial pacing of the story detracts from the shocking climax, not just because of the scene before us, but because of the abruptness of its arrival. Director Joe Murphy has little choice but to have Boyega access a range of mind states in rapid succession. The actor’s ability is stretched beyond reason, and we are lucky that he is able to rise to the challenge, for which he received cheers, plus a standing ovation from us and some other audience members.
Set designer Tom Scutt places the action within two rows of four massive grey sliding/rising panels, which certainly conjure up visions of a padded cell, and which, as if you couldn’t work it out, mark the progression of the emotional deterioration before us. It also, not very subtly, seems to represent the division of Berlin and the fracturing of a man’s psyche. The sound design is loud and intrusive, but fits with the overall feel of the show.
Theo Solomon also has a small role as an East German soldier, and is understudy for Woyzeck and Andrews.
Woyzeck, runs at the Old Vic until 24th June 2017. For more information, and tickets book here.