'Woyzeck in Winter' review or 'Is your voice warmed up?'

Woyzeck in Winter (from Büchner’s Woyzeck and Schubert’s Winterreise)
Barbican Theatre, 14th September 2017

Test your strength on Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’! Cut it up, tear it into tiny pieces, bolt a sturdy frame around the edges; do all that you dare, but ‘Woyzeck’ will always hold onto its inner ‘Woyzeckness’. This play – a tightly coiled black ball of grief, testosterone, yearning and exhaustion – was an unfinished fragment when Büchner died aged 23 yet, despite its fragile structure, it is a freakishly robust piece of theatre. It probably shouldn’t have survived over the years (Büchner started working on it in 1836) but, unlike the broken soldier at the centre of this story, ‘Woyzeck’ endures.

Director and adaptor Conall Morrison has chosen to weave Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ into Buchner’s tale of a soldier driven mad by trauma and betrayal. This ambitious reworking probably shouldn’t work: it sounds a little fussy, a bit ‘high art darling’ (try explaining this one to your friends without sending pretentious) and perhaps a tad indulgent. But it does work – it really, really works - and Schubert’s songs (which depict a heart-broken man trailing across a now-frozen landscape) and Büchner’s characters fuse to create an ice-hot study of a man torn apart from the inside out.

Brilliantly and crucially, Morrison hasn’t tried to create a ‘definitive’ or even ‘definite’ version of ‘Woyzeck’. There are still lots of gaps in Morrison’s production:  scenes that don’t quite work, shifts in tone that feel all wrong and moments when the music and play push angrily against each other. Despite working a complete song cycle into Büchner’s play, Morrison isn’t looking to create a complete ‘Woyzeck’. If anything, Morrison is tearing it apart even more – but that only makes this production all the more thrilling, and absolutely in keeping with the raw spirit of the original.  

We are nowhere in particular. The majority of the cast speaks with an Irish lilt and in lots of ways this is a distinctly Irish ‘Woyzeck’, absolutely committed to the power of storytelling and shot through with a dark Beckettian humour (a darkly twinkly Godot-esque Hurdy Gurdy man frames the show). But despite these Irish traits this ‘Woyzeck’ is timeless and placeless: it feels a bit like a seriously whacky dream you’re only just beginning to wake up from. Designer Jamie Vartan has filled with the stage with broken grand pianos, which create a looming jaggedy mountain around the edges, and along the back of the stage. It regularly snows; little flickers of pale tenderness in an otherwise gloomy landscape. We are in the bleak terrain of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, but we are also in a place where the music has stopped, and where reality has long since between overtaken by a much darker and more convincing imagined-world.

Only one piano remains upright: this is where pianist Conor Linehan remains through the production, underpinning the play with music that is alternately mocking, mournful or trembling with rage. When Ian Bostridge sang his ‘Winterreise’ at the Barbican last year, his face was a chalky white and there something otherworldly about his performance, which was utterly heart-breaking but somehow sung ‘from the other side’. But Patrick O’Kane’s Woyzeck is absolutely here and present and boiling with emotion. He is an extraordinary presence on stage: sinewy and strong, his dark eyes burning out of his hard and chiselled face. He spends a lot of time clambering up and down the mountain of pianos: an animal let loose, but absolutely unsure where he is running or what he’ll find when he gets there. All the actors share snippets of Schubert’s songs, but O’Kane’s snatches of music are mostly very sad and unbearably still. O’Kane’s voice is all tenderness and when his Woyzeck sings – ‘My love will melt away’ (flanked by Stephen Brennan’s and Barry McGovern’s spookily overblown Captain and Doctor) – the scene swells and overwhelms us. Here is a world that will not help this man. Here is a world determined to bring out the very worst in this man - wilfully unaware that there is goodness and riches to be mined here, although we the audience can hear in O’Kane’s voice just how beautiful this man might be if given the chance.

It’s quite something how the music enriches Büchner’s characters, which can seem quite forgettable in the wrong hands. The Captain and Doctor, both of whom treat Woyzeck with such dismissive cruelty, are given more stage time and a deeper significance through Schubert’s music. Their songs are exceptionally ugly – grating and repetitive and blank and ugly – but that does not matter to the Captain or the Doctor. They enjoy their moment on the stage: it puffs them up and makes them feel more important, no matter how painful it might sound to our ears.

The songs gifted to Camille O’Sullivan – who plays Woyzeck’s adulterous lover – are some of the very bravest and most revealing aspects of this production. Sometimes Camille actually sounds fairly awful when she sings. These songs were written for a tenor: they don’t always suit her voice and she struggles with the range. She occasionally sounds trapped by the music, her voice unable to work its breathy, soulful magic on this restrictive and low-reaching score. Often it sounds like Camille is singing the same note over and over again, the music oddly limited when translated through Marie’s  ‘scabby red lips’ (a typically stark poetical note from lyricist Stephen Clark, which unites beauty and horror in a single breath).

But there is something about the awkwardness of this fit between Schubert’s music and Camille’s voice that ultimately deeply enriches Büchner’s play. Here is a woman trapped in multiple frameworks, all piling in on each other and all constructed by men. Here is a woman not given the chance to properly sing, yet – somehow - we can still sense something amazing and female behind those often-ugly bass notes. Listen to the way she sweeps so beautifully from ‘high’ to ‘low’, within such a limited range. Hear how she holds firm and how we can sense the higher notes she might sing, if given the chance. The decision to cast such a mesmerising and unusual singer in this role has lent this ‘Woyzeck’ an unusual and powerful feminist slant. Look at the moments that Camille breaks through the boundaries that have been placed around Büchner’s Marie – and look at how her bloody corpse rises, circles the stage and begins to dance.