I’m not going to lie. I feel a certain trepidation whenever I am told that a show will incorporate dance. It’s not that I don’t like dance, quite the opposite, some of my favourite theatrical moments have involved dance, (the friends who were unfortunate enough to see The Border Project’s “Highway Rock ‘n’ Roll Disaster” with me will never forget my visceral, joyous reaction to that show) it’s just that sometimes, I find that dance can be used very badly in theatre. I think it’s because of how out of place it can often seem, or tacked on, or that perhaps the best dancers in the world are not always the best actors. It may also be because I just don’t get dance and it never really seems to do for me what they director wanted it to do. At its worst it can completely take me out of the play, and even sometimes at its best it simply leaves me with the feeling one gets when watching someone play guitar really fast (Man I wish I could do that!). So I was a little bit worried about seeing Woyzeck, and as it begun with a series of dances in the Belvoir foyer, it took a short time for that fear to dissipate.
It didn’t take me long to realise that this would be the sort of play I would love to love. It does some interesting things (certainly the first show in my four year history at B Sharp that started in the foyer) has some great performances and is based around a great text which is far from treated with reverence. It’s the sort of contemporary investigation of a text that can be truly rewarding when done well. Unfortunately this one only makes it halfway. In her director’s note, Netta Yashctin says that “without forcing a concept onto the work, the audience are free to make up their own view of Woyzeck’s journey.” What this translates to is a complicated web of cultural references and theatrical techniques that often feels in need of a through line or clearer directorial vision. Instead, I was left feeling off-put as an audience member for pretty much the entire time, as each new scene came out of nowhere.
A problem I often find with work like this that when so many different techniques and references are used, with each new scene I am waiting for the trick rather than investing in the scene. Between Katy Perry, the Spice Girls and professional wrestling, to name a few there’s quite a bit of pop culture implanted into this show. Thus, with each new scene often feeling incredibly separate from those around it, I often found myself thinking “what’s the trick with this scene? Will it be a Venga boys dance number? I would really like a Venga Boys dance number” rather than worrying about the characters in the scene, or even the theatrical language. (For the record, there is no Venga Boys dance number).
However, this feeling of being on the backseat the whole time is perhaps Yashctin’s way of dealing with the presence of war in the play. This is another thing she mentions in her programme note as key to the work, yet I feel the production moved away from the physical and mental realities of war. I guess in an attempt to use a more theatrical language of movement and gesture, the harsh reality of war was softened. Instead perhaps, the feeling of unease that I felt throughout the play was the desired effect, the lingering presence of war keeping me on the back foot.
There is only one truly unifying force in this play, and that is Michael Pigott’s performance in the leading role. Woyzeck’s journey into mental decay is a hard one for any actor to take on, but Pigott does so with gusto, finding a perfect rhythm for the character’s decaying body. But more than anything else, it is his honesty in the role that really wins you over. It would be easy for Woyzeck’s metaphysical monologues to fall in posturing and falsity, but one never doubts Pigott as he negotiates the twisting and turning of Woyzeck’s existential arguments. It is Pigott’s consistency that one can hold onto throughout the show as it bounces from scene to scene.
Now I worry that this all sounds a bit negative when in fact I genuinely enjoyed the show. I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet, but there are great live musicians and for all my fears, dance was used really well. I was always sure that the next scene was going to be the one that would draw me in and leave me raving. But sadly it never quite made it there. Instead it is a production that is worth seeing for the performances, for the exciting approach to a classic text, for the opportunity to see a work that is likely to never be produced again on such a stage for a long time, but which failed to leave me in awe.
P.S. We don’t discuss this often on here, but this show has a great marketing image. This is an underrated achievement. I hate most marketing images. Perhaps not most, but certainly a lot. Thought it was worth a mention - Well done to whichever person in charge of marketing was responsible.