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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.