Bay 17, Carriageworks
January 7, 2016

Australia is extremely fortunate to have many superb international arts festivals. For a country so relatively remote, they are a lightning rod, drawing productions and performers from all over the world that connect us to a global canon of creative wealth. They also illuminate the arts’ uncanny ability to transcend language and nationality by communicating on an ineffable, universally human level. Yet sometimes these powerfully innate qualities succumb to unyielding cultural barriers, and the 2016 Sydney Festival’s headline show, Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck, is a prime example of this.

Now 16 years old, this collaboration between director/designer Robert Wilson, lyricist Kathleen Brennan and American music legend Tom Waits is a pointedly esoteric retelling of Georg Büchner’s bleak tale of obsession and infidelity. Woyzeck, the disenfranchised and socially isolated soldier, is driven mad with jealousy upon discovering that he has been betrayed by the woman he loves. It is only after he enacts his murderous revenge that he understands the one object of hope in his otherwise barren world has been lost.

The narrative is unpacked into twelve episodes that slither seamlessly together as the actors scramble over a vast suspended net that pivots and tilts above the stage. Existing in a hinterland between bleeding-edge avant garde theatre and some grimy style of Brechtian cabaret, the dense German dialogue is a stark and sometimes grinding foil for Waits’ soulful, emotionally raw songs.

At its core is an exploration of distortion and decay. Our fixed perspective of the proscenium is subverted as the actors trace the shifting vectors of the netted set, their journeys over this ever changing canvass suggesting the instability, both socially and psychologically, of their tense relationships. The bluesy vernacular of Waits’ songs is also passed through a grubby filter of junkyard percussion, blaring amplification and gritty vocals. Both visually and musically this production is striking, even arresting at times, and the contrast of Waits’ Americana infused Weill-esque ballades and the icy formality of the dialogue offers an intriguing juxtaposition of aesthetics.

Felix Knopp as Woyzeck and Franziska Hartmann as Marie

However these bold creative statements lack a much needed foundation of dramatic eloquence. Büchner’s story charts the catastrophic unravelling of a mind, yet this production fails to deliver the crescendo of Woyzeck’s psychosis. From the outset the highly stylised characterisation of the entire cast is firmly rooted in mental derangement, leaving no room for any further development. By the time we reach the violent climax of Woyzeck’s descent into madness, what should be a moment of shocking power feels distinctly unremarkable.

There are also some problematic cultural hurdles with this adaptation that leave an Australian audience out in the cold. The text is almost poetic in its linguistic complexity, yet the translation seems to undermine this dactylic quality – an issue made infinitely worse by the poorly managed surtitles on opening night. Indeed, there are many references that seem to hold meaning of we know not what, resulting in a pervading impression that as an audience we’re repeatedly missing some subtle punch line. This acts to make large swathes of the action seem redundant, with certain characters appearing to be superfluous altogether.

This production is undeniably sophisticated, delivering a slick and technically impressive display, but with so many basic fundamentals failing to hit their mark, this experimental Woyzeck is, on the whole, unforgivably challenging. Even without these impenetrable cultural barriers the anatomy of this piece would be confronting for most theatregoers; with them it’s just plain baffling.

Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck is at Carriageworks until January 12, part of the 2016 Sydney Festival.