The Old Vic, 27th May 2017
One day soon the Old Vic under the aegis of its ambitious Artistic Director, Mathew Warchus, is going to come up with an absolute stonker. The strategy of taking a classic play, or new work from a top flight current playwright, stuffing it with stars of stage and screen, wheeling in the brightest directors and other collaborators (if Mr Warchus doesn’t himself take the helm), and then bringing to a steady boil is surely going to pay off. We have come mighty close in the last couple of years; for me Tim Minchin’s musical Groundhog Day was a triumph but the straight plays have, for one reason or another, not quite smashed the ball out of the park.
The production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead saw fine performances from Daniel Radcliffe and, especially, Joshua McGuire, and sure-footed direction from Stoppard veteran David Leveaux, but it is Stoppard, so there is no indulgence for any lapse of concentration by (me) the audience. Art contained three fine performances from Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Ke,y but not enough to persuade me that this play remains rather too pleased with itself. In retrospect there should have been no surprise at all that Glenda Jackson gave us a peremptory Lear, but Deborah Warner’s directing didn’t fully solve some of the play’s issues for me (I am all for massaging the text here to enhance proceedings), and there was some jarring casting. I can’t exactly say why, but the Caretaker directed by Mr Warchus himself didn’t quite deliver that electric thrill that Pinter can serve up when it all comes together, despite an outstandingly wheedling Davies from Tim Spall. And the Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes was frustrating, largely because of Sarah Snook’s Hilde I am afraid. I loved The Hairy Ape with Bertie Carvel (next up as young Robert Murdoch in Ink at the Almeida). In fact, for me, it has been the most successful of the productions since Mr Warchus’s tenure commenced, but I get that early Expressionist Eugene O’Neill is not for everyone. Finally the less said about Future Conditional the better, although the idea was sound.
So I was hoping that Woyzeck might be the one. I fear it was not, though John Boyega’s tragic performance was riveting (let’s hope after this debut he doesn’t get lost to Hollywood). Now part of the problem may be that I only know the story here from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. This is a musical masterpiece which I am slowly getting to grips with having seen a handful of productions now. Whilst Berg himself wrote the libretto he was keen, at least based on what he said, to retain the “essential character” of Georg Buchner’s 1837 play (the poor fella died aged 23) with “its many short scenes, its abrupt and sometimes brutal language, and its stark, if haunted, realism…”. If you have never seen the opera (and you should) then, trust me, he does.
So I can’t be sure just exactly how far Jack Thorne’s new adaptation deviates from Buchner’s fragmentary, unfinished text. But I know a man who does which is why the SO and the TFP’s were fairly willingly cajoled into joining me. And it is fair to say that Mr TFP, who is all over German literature, and I, were both a bit bamboozled by this.
I won’t spoil since the production has some weeks to go, but the shift to the divided Berlin of 1981, the insertion of an extensive back story for the lead and some fairly radical shifting around of events and character action/motivation (notably for Marie, Woyzeck’s wife, Andrews, his mate here, and Maggie, the Captain’s wife) didn’t entirely work for me. The social criticism in Buchner’s work was less evident (how grinding poverty and real hunger leaves the “lower classes” unable to sustain a “moral” life). The depiction (and causes) of Woyzeck’s psychosis were a little forced through some of the the extended dream sequences. The dehumanisng impact of military service seemed to get lost a little inside one man’s struggle with his own demons.
If I am honest I think the laudable attempt to update the play (this is not some plea for “authenticity”) and offer a more complete narrative, left the production poised uneasily between a sort of TV drama realism (Mr Thorne’s comfort zone as he himself freely admits in the programme), and the more usual Expressionist tableau (most obviously visible in set and sound design), which didn’t quite do it for me. This tension between naturalistic and expressionistic is the conundrum at the heart of Buchner’s text I gather, but Jack Thorne and director Joe Murphy’s solutions seem to drag the structure down. Sometimes less can be more.
There are some memorable images though, especially if you are partial to a bit of simulated shagging, a gentleman’s full frontal, topless ladies and red marigolds (rubber not floral), and other borderline theatrical cliches. The supporting performances are all robust. So maybe, in the spirit of the less is more advice, you might find this more rewarding than me if you go in without too much expectation or preconception.
So next up at the Old Vic is Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, which he is self-directing (with Joe Murphy assisting). Stardust will be sprinkled courtesy of Bob Dylan’s music and we have an interesting and expansive cast (including Ron Cook, Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, all firm favourites of mine). The setting in Minnesota intrigues (so no Steinbeckian dust bowl tragedy or Southern family saga I assume). Maybe this will be the one then.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic review ****
more time required
The cast for the revival of Art