Woyzeck in Winter at the Dublin Theatre Festival

Woyzeck in Winter

by Conall Morrison
adapted from Büchner's Woyzeck and Schubert's Winterreise
Landmark Productions
The Gaiety, Dublin
7 October 2017

Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is one of the key dramas of the German stage and it is a very dark and bleak work. It heaps all the miseries of the world on top of one impoverished and put-upon German soldier, Franz Woyzeck, who is struggling to make ends meet, to keep his superiors happy and provide for his girlfriend and their child, but circumstances conspire to drive him to an act of madness and murder her. What makes Woyzeck an exceptional work and more than just a litany of misery is how it manages to describe and encapsulate, reduce and distill everything that is troubling about life and existence within its unfinished form.

Woyzeck's unfinished form might well indeed be the key factor that determines the troubling intensity of the work. The 24 fragmentary scenes see the soldier humiliated by his sergeant, suffering physical maltreatment at the hands of a quack doctor who is conducting experiments on him, being belittled by his girlfriend Marie for failing to adequately provide for her and their child - who he shows little interest in - and the soldier's miseries are compounded by Marie cheating on him by a drum major who then publicly beats and humiliates him. All of the physical abuse and mental torments gradually take its toll on Woyzeck, who starts to hallucinate and ends up stabbing Marie to death.

As well as being a challenge to bring it to the stage, the idea of filling out or bringing a sense of structure to the random collection of scenes has been embarked upon by filmmakers like Werner Herzog, and it is the basis for one of the most important works of 20th century opera in Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Conall Morrison however has surely come up with the most extraordinary fusion of art forms merging Büchner's play with Franz Schubert's lieder song cycle, Winterreise, a near contemporary work that nonetheless shares some uncanny similarities and themes, and is also an unfinished work made up of 24 songs.

Morrison's fusion of Büchner and Schubert in Woyzeck in Winter is an extraordinarily ambitious idea, and all the more extraordinary for the results it yields. Woyzeck on its own terms can be a nearly unendurable work of face-pummelling misery, but it would be a mistake to try and lessen the impact of the sheer unflinching coarseness and brutality of the world that the drama depicts. That's always going to be a risk when a director tries to impose a structure on the play, but as Berg's compositional innovations successfully show, music can provide another means of access to the dark heart of the work by bringing its own challenging perspective. But Schubert?

Schubert's piano setting of the 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller that comprise the song cycle Winterreise don't strike one as an obvious match for Woyzeck. Its gloomy obsessions on the theme of Death are rather more poetic and Romantic in contrast to the rather more grim and earthy depiction of life in Woyzeck. Conall Morrison's way of interweaving the more reflective search for meaning in Schubert's Winterreise songs into the brutal realities that Franz Woyzeck experiences somehow miraculously transforms both works into something entirely new. Rather than lessen or indeed even risk doubling the bleakness, Schubert offers a sense of melancholy to Woyzeck's experience, a sense of energy and life to his relationship with Marie, and even perhaps a glimmer of joy at the possibility that there is some purpose to it all.

It helps that Morrison in no way softens the coarse and brutal intent of Woyzeck in its language and expression, and he has two energetic actors in Patrick O’Kane and Camille O’Sullivan to drive it home. Neither are professional singers and Winterreise usually calls for a very skilled tenor or baritone singer of great experience and interpretational ability to sing its songs. What they lack in singing ability however is more than compensated for by heartfelt acting and in the dialogue that is established between the scenes from Woyzeck and the English translated songs from Winterreise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the combination has something of a character of the street theatre of Kurt Weill. Jamie Vartan's impressive stage set attempts to fuse a greater connection between the representation of a troubled mindset and the music, the stage a junk-yard Everest of old pianos that O'Kane's Franz Woyzeck weaves through and clambers over, tossing parts aside in fury and frustration.

Certainly, it would seem that it's Woyzeck that is enhanced by the association with Winterreise than the other way around, but the musical pleasures in Conor Linehan's piano playing are also invigorated, seamlessly blending instrumental playing in between the acting and the songs. There is also some fine singing-acting performances from Rosaleen Linehan as the Hurdy-Gurdy Man, from Stephen Brennan as the Captain and Barry McGovern as the Doctor. With every element working in perfect harmony, from concept to casting to staging, in performance and direction, it's not so much a case of Woyzeck or Winterreise gaining or losing anything as much Woyzeck in Winter establishing itself as a unique, creative piece of musical theatre.

Conall Morrison

Woyzeck - Patrick O'Kane
Marie - Camille O'Sullivan
Captain - Stephen Brennan
Drum Major - Peter Coonan
Margret | Monkey | Journeyman | Grandmother | Kathe - Susannah De Wrixon
Hurdy-Gurdy Man - Rosaleen Linehan
Doctor - Barry McGovern
Barker | Showman | First Journeyman | Karl - Rory Nolan
Adres | Sergeant - Shane O'Reilly
Pianist - Conor Linehan

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