Woyzeck wings its way to Sydney
Sydney Festival audiences will find the Thalia Theatre version of Buchner’s Woyzeck replete with contemporary resonances, writes Julian Tompkin
The analogy wasn’t lost on all Germans. Having resigned as Greece’s finance minister the week before, Yanis Varoufakis finally resurfaced on July 13 to give his first post-office confessional to Australian broadcaster Phillip Adams on his Radio National program.
Greece had yet to buckle to the crippling bailout conditions conjured up in Berlin. Responding to Adams’s allusion that, for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, “humiliation is piled on humiliation”, Varoufakis conceded: “They will make him eat every single word that he uttered in criticism.”
For 82 million Germans, this real-time melodrama was squeamishly proverbial: wrenched from the spine of one of the country’s most fabled texts, Woyzeck. In the seminal 1836 play by Georg Buchner, the lead character and namesake is a downtrodden stooge: what in the post-Howard political vernacular might optimistically be called a “battler”. Newly wed, with a young child to feed, he’s utterly strapped for cash with bugger-all hope of breaking out of the gruelling bind predestined for him — a life of exiguity and utter desperation.
Such is his predicament, Woyzeck sees little alternative but to accept the exploitation by those higher up the food chain — the Captain and the Doctor. The latter deals Woyzeck with the ultimate humiliation: offering him cash relief to partake in an absurd medical experiment, where he is permitted to eat only peas. With no alternative beyond financial ruin, Woyzeck capitulates — and is plunged into the abyss of depravity and madness. You don’t need to scratch around too far to find the contemporary analogy.
“It’s the ultimate in the humiliation by austerity,” Jette Steckel says of Woyzeck’s fate. One of Germany’s emerging crop of bold young theatre directors, Steckel sowed her reputation early on with her striking take on Woyzeck in 2010, with Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre — a widely lauded production still in repertoire five years after its debut. The show now comes to next year’s Sydney Festival with a production that marks Thalia’s Australian debut.
“The text is so timeless, so strong,” the 33year-old director continues, sipping a coffee in Hamburg’s resplendent UNESCO-listed warehouse district. A foghorn resounds in the distance, betraying the city’s gritty maritime history — the conurbation where the Beatles lost their innocence. Steckel points towards the cafe’s vaulted ceiling: “The staccato of words are nailed into the atmosphere, forever.
“We now live in a world where 99 per cent of the wealth is in the hands of 1 per cent. This work has never been more relevant. Also, it opened the way for everything that came next — Brecht and Beckett, and beyond that. It was one of the first texts that put the social reality in focus. It wasn’t romantic at all — it was hard and ugly. Buchner changed everything.”
Born in 1813 into what was then the Grand Duchy of Hesse, an independent country in Germany’s central west, Buchner was a precocious and prodigious lad, predestined to follow his father’s line as a physician until he discovered Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon would derail Buchner’s waltz into upper-class providence, igniting his obsessions for both dramaturgy and the burgeoning discipline of human rights.
It was while studying medicine in Strasbourg that Buchner came under the utopian spell of proto-socialist theory — namely that of Henri de Saint-Simon, whose manifesto on working class empowerment would also pique the curiosity of a young German journalist named Karl Marx. Back in Giessen in 1834 (more than three decades before the publication of Das Kapital), Buchner published a political treatise entitled Der Hessische Landbote ( The Hessian Courier), castigating the duchy’s disregard for social justice and human rights. It was as agitated as it was anarchistic, calling for nothing short of mutiny against the establishment.
The pamphlet’s publisher, Friedrich Ludwig Weidig, would soon after wind up dead in a Darmstadt prison. Buchner fled back to Strasbourg and, with renewed urgency, set about penning what would prove to be his entire theatrical oeuvre: Danton’s Death (set during the French Revolution), the farcical comedy Leonce and Lena and, ultimately, Woyzeck — a portentous fable loosely based on the real-life tragedy of a Leipzig wigmaker, Johann Christian Woyzeck. On February 19, 1837, Buchner would succumb to typhus. He was just 23.
With his works banned in much of Germany’s cobbled amalgam of 19th-century fiefdoms and duchies, it wasn’t until the country’s union as the Deutsches Reich in 1871 under Bismarck that Buchner’s works were finally let loose. And Europe’s emerging countercultures of expressionists and naturalists were eagerly waiting — drawn both to his ruthless, yet canny, portrayal of social depravity and his militant assault on the cult of entitlement.
Nearly half a century later when the young Bavarian upstart Bertolt Brecht was looking for cues to inform his theatrical polemics, he didn’t need to look far. And Alban Berg was equally enraptured, transforming the work into the appropriately cataclysmic 1922 opera, Wozzeck. Indeed, as Germany lumbered on through monarchy to autocracy to democracy to dictatorship to ideological divorce and on to reunification, Buchner’s always been there: the sage old uncle muttering, “I won’t say I told you so”.
It’s this social and political deja vu that keeps Buchner in business. He’s all-pervading: there, in Nietzsche’s notorious maxim “when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you”. There, in the frail candle paintings of Gerhard Richter, eternally threatening to extinguish. There, in last year’s Oscar nominated German film We are Young. We are Strong — an account of the 1992 neo-Nazi riots against immigrants in the northern city of Rostock — in the weary words of an old man: “My father fought against the democrats because he was a fascist, and I fought against my father because I’m a communist, then you fought against me because you wanted to be a democrat … and now I wonder what [your son] is doing.”
It’s telling that, despite his truncated oeuvre, Germany named its major national literature prize in Buchner’s honour — over Goethe, Hesse, Heine or Schiller. In a country that has very much witnessed the devil’s dance from the front row, Buchner has been a loyal, and empathetic, companion.
Steckel came to Buchner like most Germans: through school. Her son is named after Buchner’s 1835 short story Lenz. Despite seismic pressures from Hollywood and beyond, this remains a country that reveres its cultural luminaries and polemicists as highly as its footy stars. Names such as Wagner, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Einstein and Grass resonate gut deep here.
Born of renowned artistic stock — her father, Frank-Patrick Steckel, is an acclaimed German theatre director and her mother, Susanne Raschig, an equally revered stage designer — Steckel cedes that she had little choice in her destiny. “Theatre is how I process the world,” she says, gazing down over the roily waters of the Elbe River.
A protege of German theatrical doyen Ulrich Khuon, the West Berlin-born Steckel laughs that she came to the charmed northern city of Hamburg for a “few months” and stayed 12 years. “I didn’t realise at the time, but I guess I was running away from Berlin.”
A quarter of a century after reunification, Berlin’s theatre landscape is anything but reconciled. The city’s two leading companies remain direct descendants of the stark ideological divide: the Volksbuhne in the east and the Schaubuhne in the west.
While the Volksbuhne has become a heady sanctuary for embattled leftist intellectuals spooked at even a whiff of anything remotely populist, the Schaubuhne has fled in the opposite direction — becoming a promiscuous hypermarket of genre-contorting performance art. The gaping middle space is filled by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and the more classicist Deutsches Theatre, where Steckel regularly moonlights directing the eternal canon: Shakespeare, Camus, Sartre and Gorky.
“It gets to a point where it’s not about theatre any more,” she says, weaving lucidly between
German and English. “It’s reactionary. It’s like, “OK, he did that so now I need to respond in the opposite direction”. It’s rooted in envy. The east is envious of the west as the west were the winners, but the west is envious of the east as they lost — which means they have more emotionally to draw on for their art. It all gets a little exhausting.
“The wall may have come down but this discourse is not yet finished. It’s fascinating, but I just want to make good theatre. I grew up here at the Thalia. It’s a great city — despite the rain,” Steckel says.
While far removed from the coalface theatre of Berlin, Thalia nonetheless has a stunning pedigree. Founded in 1843, the house has seen more than its share of groundbreaking premieres: not least the Robert Wilson-Tom WaitsWilliam S. Burroughs cult classic The Black
Rider (1990), followed shortly thereafter by the Wilson-Waits-penned Alice (1992) — both with significant contribution from Waits’s wife and co-conspirator Kathleen Brennan.
It would seem a natural choice, then, for Steckel to take up the mantle of the highly lauded Wilson-Waits-Brennan musical adaptation of Woyzeck, which premiered in Copenhagen in 2000. Wilson is a part-time resident of Berlin these days, and his wildly sensorial productions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (a collaboration with Canadian tunesmith Rufus Wainwright) and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera remain in regular repertoire at the Berliner Ensemble.
“No, no, no,” she rebukes, running her hands through her cropped hair. “I didn’t want to go anywhere near it. Americans doing Woyzeck? Of course I respect Robert Wilson, but he is another generation. Yes, he was an inspiration for my own generation. But it’s our responsibility to react against his aesthetic. This relationship is the same we all have with our fathers. It’s love and hate. We can be glad we have people to look up to, but standing in those shadows you feel so small. That’s why we need to break away.”
In the end it was the music of Waits that persuaded her to stage her own Woyzeck, loosely based on the Wilson-Waits-Brennan adaptation. “Waits is Buchner, Buchner is Waits,” Steckel reasons. “Waits unlocks things otherwise forbidden in the text — things that are felt but cannot be said. Much of Woyzeck is just pure emotion — he says things like, ‘ Can’t you hear this, can’t you feel this — it’s burning’. Waits gives these feelings a voice. When I heard the music I immediately had the fantasy — I began understanding what I needed to do. I saw what would become my Woyzeck.”
Despite their compatibility as minstrels of the macabre — invariably set to a cheap sideshow waltz — Waits had never heard of Buchner or Woyzeck when Wilson raised the prospect of an adaptation.
“Wilson told me about this lowly soldier who submitted to medical experiments and went slowly mad,” Waits said in an interview 2002. “He finds out his wife is unfaithful. He slits her throat and throws his knife in the lake, goes in after it and drowns, and then his child is raised by the village idiot. I said, ‘ OK, I’m in. You had me at slit her throat.’ ”
Waits’s soundtrack — manifesting in 2002’s album release Blood Money — made the metaphysical physical. His Kurt Weill-esque paeans to misery cracked open the grimy concrete hull of Woyzeck, metamorphosing the work into a rollicking proletarian operetta. Songs such as
Misery is the River of the World and God’s Away on Business, dripping with fetid irony, belie the absurdity and hopelessness of Woyzeck’s predicament. “The likes of us are wretched in this world and in the next,” Woyzeck mutters in Buchner’s text. “I guess if we ever got to heaven we’d have to help with the thunder.
“The music offers a vent, a possibility to extract new emotions,” Steckel affirms. “Suddenly it’s OK to laugh or cry. This is not wrong. It’s not a crime to laugh or cry in theatre, as in life! It’s not my perspective on life that we should only think and not feel. With [ Woyzeck] the music starts where words stop. Music opens the door to a profound inside world.”
While Waits’s sooty fingerprints may be all over Steckel’s production, Wilson’s are markedly absent — most tellingly in the understated stage setting, composed of a single net.
“The net is a picture of society,” Steckel offers, reaching for a cigarette. “It shows well how thin the superficial surface of our society and states of being are. It’s so simple — nothing gets in the way or distracts. Plus, let’s be honest, we are all caught in ‘the net’.” With his days numbered, Buchner left Woyz
eck incomplete, ending with the tantalisingly vague direction “ertrinkt”, which has been widely interpreted to mean Woyzeck committed suicide by drowning after killing his philandering lover Marie. It’s tempting to speculate Buchner recognised the work’s eternal nature, hence left it open so future generations could plunder it for their own conclusions. But of course such chimerical inquisitions are futile.
Steckel’s production has not escaped its own tragedies. Two members of the original production — including music director Gerd Bessler, who worked closely with Waits on The
Black Rider and Alice — have since died. “Woyzeck is forever,” Steckel offers, gazing through the rain towards the rusting shipyards of the Elbe. “It may be of another time, but it’s for all time. There’s always something new to uncover, some other message.
“We, the cast and crew of this show, have all gotten older. Our lives have moved on, and we lost some people along the way. There is so much distance between us and [the first production]. But Woyzeck has changed with us. This is its secret. It’s eternal.”
Woyzeck runs at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival, January 7-12.
This page, scenes from Thalia Theatre’s Woyzeck, loosely based on an adaptation of Buchner’s play by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
‘Waits is Buchner, Buchner is Waits,’ director Jette Steckel, far left, says of the singersongwriter, left