Jack Thorne’s explosive new Woyzeck brings Büchner’s unfinished working class tragedy to Berlin in 1981, with our hero a British Army private, trying to adjust to life on the German border between capitalism and communism after a hideous stint in Belfast. Strapped for cash, patronised by those in authority, and frantic to shore up his fragile new family of girlfriend and baby in the face of widespread disapproval, Woyzeck’s increasingly desperate cries for help fall on deaf ears in a cynical, hypocritical world which only wants to exploit him. Quite what happened to Woyzeck on his service in Troubles-torn Ireland, and what dark deeds he witnessed in an exceptionally traumatic childhood, tease us throughout Thorne’s version; military characters mutter about Woyzeck’s past career, Thorne brings Woyzeck’s mother onto the stage as a terrifying spectre haunting his memories and nightmares (grittily played by a compelling Nancy Carroll, also glorious as callously posh officer’s wife Maggie), and a boy actor represents Woyzeck’s childhood self, witnessing casual atrocities whose psychological impact only deepens over time.
As his mind unhinges, Woyzeck clutches desperately at hope, love and goodness, but the perennial uncertainty implicit in hope steadily drives him mad. We tread the path of insanity with him as his nightmarish insecurities take over during a medical trial; even such staunch realities as the gender of his child become bewilderingly uncertain in his increasingly surreal mindscape. Meanwhile, Thorne gives Marie’s own story more prominence and poignance, her wholehearted commitment to Woyzeck clear, making her murder a final tragedy for them both. A selection of Büchner’s characters are synthesised into Andrews (Ben Batt), Woyzeck’s charismatic comrade with an unquenchable thirst for life, especially other people’s wives. Thorne has certainly been busy: but these additions all serve to build a quiveringly taut narrative structure, full of pathos, with Woyzeck’s disintegration implicit from early on. In other words, it’s a barnstorming success.
Joe Murphy’s blistering production does full justice to Thorne’s text, with no holds barred when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and gore, yet nothing otiose either; pace is relentlessly high, tension even higher. Design by Tom Scutt communicates a brutal landscape almost sterile with constant aggression and inactivity, as menacing walls of rough insulation swoop down from the sky, alternately enclosing and exposing characters who live by definitions, by barriers, and above all by hiding what they truly are. But it is John Boyega’s astonishing Woyzeck which is the powerhouse of this piece, beginning with unassuming gentleness and sincere affection, and culminating in a truly exceptional depiction of madness. In a performance of frankly terrifying physical and psychological intensity, Boyega balances a soldier’s physical machismo with profound inner vulnerability to produce a Woyzeck both utterly lovable and undeniably frightening, ravenous for an impossible level of emotional reassurance from Marie (movingly played by Sarah Greene), and endlessly haunted by his past, always worried that the present is “too good” to stay that way for long. Woyzeck’s betrayals by the two father figures on stage, Steffan Rhodri’s nicely observed Captain Thompson and Darrell D’Silva’s delightfully creepy Doctor Martens, feel as appalling as they are inevitable. Boyega’s profoundly affecting portrayal goes to the very heart of this character, a man driven to madness and violence by a cruel world – and, crucially, by his own doomed determination to do good in it.
In such a generally slick, potent play, it’s surprising to note that we do still find the odd clumsy or under-rehearsed moment, and lines don’t always flow seamlessly; but this is nevertheless an emotionally challenging, deeply unsettling must-see.
Box office: 0844 871 7628. At The Old Vic until 24 June 2017