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Woyzeck, Old Vic, review: ‘haunted by the ghost of a good play’

PUBLISHED: 17:00 01 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:35 02 June 2017

John Boyega in Woyzeck. Picture; Manuel Harlan

John Boyega in Woyzeck. Picture; Manuel Harlan

Archant

John Boyega stars in Jack Thorne’s version of Georg Büchner’s play about a young soldier driven to madness and murder, but a clichéd script does a disservice to issues surrounding veteran mental health

John Boyega and Sara Greene in Woyzeck at the Old Vic. Picture: Manuel HarlanJohn Boyega and Sara Greene in Woyzeck at the Old Vic. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Georg Büchner left his seminal work uncompleted upon his death in 1837 and Jack Thorne has done little to convincingly piece the fragments together.

John Boyega lacks military bearing but does his utmost to bring Shakespearean levels of gravitas to a script that can’t lift itself beyond undergraduate essay material.

He’s the storm trooper drafted in to ply a member of the troops, and that’s about as deep as the play gets despite throwing everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to evoke tragedy.

There’s masturbation, copulation, lactation, hallucination, pill popping, bed swapping, tits and arse and even a freshly waxed penis played for titillating shock value.

Sarah Greene is beguiling and sympathetic as Marie, and Ben Batt toggles effortlessly between comic and menacing as Andrews. Nancy Carroll steals every scene she’s in, flipping between the bitingly posh officer’s wife and Woyzeck’s abusive mother.

What drives Woyzeck to madness? Is it that he didn’t get enough love in his childhood? That his mother was sex worker? That he grew up in the care-to-prison pipeline to join the army, only to be traumatised by war? Or is it the medical trial he’s forced to undertake for a quick buck?

Thorne doesn’t bother to try and answer these questions, they just all get thrown at the proverbial Berlin Wall to see what sticks. Transposing the setting to 1980s Berlin provides the opportunity for a clichéd sinister German scientist, who swaps the madness inducing pea diet of the original for mysterious blue pills and whose accent works to really hammer the Freudian subtext home.

It does lend itself to show stopping stagecraft, set off by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s suitably menacing sounscapes.

Tom Scutt’s walls close in claustrophobically like Woyzeck’s tangled mind, blurring the line between fevered dream and twisted reality.

Sometimes they tremble so gently you think you might be the one losing the plot. By the end they’re coming apart at the seams, stuffed with oozing blood and gore.

By the time the play reaches its tragic denouement it’s almost a relief. Thorne claims to be drawing parallels to the current veteran mental health issues, but has Boyega writhe like an animal and literally foam at the mouth in a recklessly outdated portrayal of a mental health crisis.

To stuff your programme with stats on veteran mental health issues images of weeping soldiers in Afghanistan then end the play with a veteran murder suicide left a particularly bad taste in the mouth.

If I was feeling cynical I’d say it was an attempt to cash in culturally on the current conversation around mental health in the military. If I was being generous, I’d say it was a tragically missed opportunity to explore a very modern issue. Why go for a cardboard cut out bond villain with psychotropic drugs when you have the very real scandal of Lariam hanging over the armed forces?

‘Are you hunted or haunted?’ Captain Thompson (Steffan Rhodri) challenges Woyzeck. This production is haunted, by the ghost of what could have a good play.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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