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Woyzeck at The Old Vic

Alice Dickerson

The Old Vic's star hire John Boyega lives up to his top billing but the rest of the production unfortunately does not match it.

The quality of a production is in inverse proportion to the number of swear words used within it. If that rule does not exist then I'm tempted to invent it. Profanities can of course add something to our understanding of the characters and their circumstances. Yet so often they are littered throughout a script either to arouse mild outrage or, even worse, in a misguided attempt to seek to widen the appeal of a production. This is not about prudishness or a sensitive temperament but a desire to understand the depths of a character. Unfortunately copious amounts of unnecessary crudeness and nudity in The Old Vic's version of Woyzeck detracts from the measured performance of John Boyega in the titular role.

Every version of Woyzeck has to struggle with the fact that Buchner's creation was incomplete at the time of his death. Successive writers have therefore been granted creative licence to impose their own interpretation on the original text. In Jack Thorne's version, Woyzeck is a British solder posted in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Buchner's other characters are of course all present – Woyzeck's girlfriend and their illegitimate child; commanding officer Captain Thompson; and Doctor Martens who Woyzeck encounters when participating in a medical experiment to supplement his low income.

But they are reduced to crude caricatures – Thompson and his wife are comically posh, paper thin stereotypes, disguising the real class divide in the army in Buchner's time which persists today. Doctor Martens is portrayed as a mad scientist, detracting from the serious impact that the medical experiment is having on Woyzeck's mental health. Only Sarah Greene is able to sensitively portray Woyzeck's lover Marie, trapped by her circumstances but unwilling to be pitied or condescended to.

It is great to see John Boyega, fresh from Star Wars super fame, back so soon on the London stage. High expectations were riding on his performance and he lives up to this pressure. Thanks to the vulnerability he brings to the role, Boyega's portrayal of Woyzeck's descent into madness is almost as affecting as it should be. A young, damaged, under-privileged man cut off in his prime. Yet, in a quest for accessibility, The Old Vic's production has not done the original text justice.

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