Case Study: Vesturport’s Woyzeck
The challenge of re-imagining a classic work often lies in finding the right translation of ideas, concepts, and imagery for a modern context. Classic pieces of theatre carry many pieces of baggage to the production process: their history, the stories of their past incarnations, the lives of famous actors and actresses who performed in starring roles, the interpretation of their designers, and all the flotsam and jetsam that might be found with any single production of the piece in question. A classic work, therefore, is not just the text of the author but a historical thread that traces the line of the work from its origin to its current manifestation. The question that must be addressed in the remounting of a classic work is, why: why this classic work, why now, why does this play matter more than any other?
In 2008 Iceland’s Vesturport theatre company presented their re-imagining of Büchner’s Woyzeck, a work about class, status, and madness. Written between 1836 – 1837, Büchner’s play tells the story of Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a German town. He lives with Marie, with whom he has had a child. For extra pay Woyzeck performs odd jobs for the captain and is involved in medical experiments for the Doctor. Over the course of the play’s serialized vignettes Woyzeck’s grasp on the world begins to break apart as the result of his confrontation with an ugly world of betrayal and abuse. The end of the play is a jealous, psychologically crippled, and cuckolded Woyzeck who ruthlessly lures Marie to the pond in the woods where he kills her. There is some debate about the actual ending to Büchner’s play. While the version that is most frequently produced has a Woyzeck who is unpunished, there is some speculation that one version of the play ended with the lead character facing a trial for his crime. As a historical note, Büchner’s work is loosely based upon the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a wigmaker, who murdered the window with whom he lived. Tragically, Büchner’s died in 1837 from typhus and never saw Woyzeck performed. It wasn’t, in fact, performed until 1913. In this respect, Woyzeck has always been a play that is performed outside of its original time in history. It has always been a window backwards to a different time, while simultaneously being a means for the theatre to examine the time in which it is being produced.
It therefore comes as no surprise that in 2008 a play offering a commentary on the complex social conditions of class and status opens in a country standing at the edge of a financial crisis that would come to shape the next three years of its economic standing in the world. A play about the use and misuse of power in a world where a desperate Woyzeck tries to explain to a bourgeoisie captain that the poor are “flesh and blood… wretched in this world and the next…” (Büchner) rings as a warning about what that corner of the world was soon to face.
The Response to Vesturport’s Aesthetic
From the moment of its formation, Vesturport has been a company that often appropriates material and looks to add an additional element of spectacle – early in their formation as a troupe they mounted productions of Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus. This additional element of spectacle is specifically characterized by a gymnastic and aerial (contemporary circus) aesthetic. The company’s connection to a circus aesthetic is often credited to Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s, the company’s primary director, background as a gymnast (Vesturport). The use of circus as a mechanism for story telling is both compelling and engaging. Peta Tait captures this best as she talks about what circus represents:
Circus performance presents artistic and physical displays of skillful action by highly rehearsed bodies that also perform cultural ideas: of identity, spectacle, danger, transgression. Circus is performative, making and remaking itself as it happens. Its languages are imaginative, entertaining and inventive, like other art forms, but circus is dominated by bodies in action [that] can especially manipulate cultural beliefs about nature, physicality and freedom. (Tait 6)
The very nature of circus as a performance technique, therefore, brings a kind of translation to Vesturport’s work that is unlike the work of other theatre companies. They are also unique in their use of language, as their productions frequently feature translations that fit the dominant language of a given touring venue. More than a company that features the use of circus as a gimmick, Vesturport uses the body’s relationship to space as a translation of ideas into movement, just as their use of language itself is a constant flow of translation.
Vesturport’s production of Woyzeck invites the audience to play with them as “Gardarsson’s gleefully physical staging of Büchner’s masterpiece … is played out on an industrial set of gleaming pipes, green astroturf, and water-filled plexiglass tanks” (Vesturport). Melissa Wong, in writing for Theatre Journal sees a stage that “resembled a swimming pool and playground” that fills the stage with a “playful illusion.” The playful atmosphere of the production, however, is always in flux as a series of nightmarish moments of abuse are juxtaposed against scenes of slapstick comedy and aerial feats. Wong later sees a Woyzeck who “possessed a vulnerability that contrasted with the deliberately grotesque portrayals of the other characters.” Wong’s ultimate assessment of the contrasting moments of humor and spectacle is that they “served to emphasize the pathos of the play, especially at the end when the fun and frolicking faded away to reveal the broken man that Woyzeck had become.” Not all American critics, however, shared her enthusiasm for Vesturport’s production. Charles Isherwood in writing for the New York Times sees the use of circus as a distraction, writing that, “the circus is never in serious danger of being spoiled by that party-pooping Woyzeck…it’s hard to fathom what attracted these artists to Büchner’s deeply pessimistic play, since they so blithely disregard both its letter and its spirit.” Jason Best shares a similar frustration with the production, writing “by relegating Büchner’s words to second place, the production ends up more impressive as spectacle than effective as drama.” Ethan Stanislawski was frustrated by a lack of depth in Gardarsson’s production saying “this Woyzeck is as comical, manic, and intentionally reckless as it is intellectually shallow.”
Circus as an Embodied Language
Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Tait writes “… aerial acts are created by trained, muscular, bodies. These deliver a unique aesthetic that blends athleticism and artistic expression. As circus bodies, they are indicative of highly developed cultural behavior. The ways in which spectators watch performers’ bodies – broadly, socially, physical and erotically – come to the fore with the wordless performance of an aerial act.” Spivak reminds us that:
Logic allows us to jump from word to word by means of clearly indicated connections. Rhetoric must work in the silence between and around words in order to see what works and how much. The jagged relationship between rhetoric and logic, condition and effect of knowing, is a relationship by which a world is made for the agent, so that the agent can act in an ethical way, a political way, a day-to-day way; so that the agent can be alive in a human way, in the world. (Spivak 181)
Woyzeck’s challenge is fundamentally about understanding how to live in this world. A world that is unjust, frequently characterized by subjugation, and exploitative. Gardarsson uses circus to depict a world that is both ugly and beautiful. He uses circus to call our attention to these problems as embodied manifestation. The critics miss what’s happening in the production, and this is especially evident when looking at what Tait has to say the role of new circus as a medium:
New circus assumes its audience is familiar with the format of traditional live circus, and then takes its artistic inspiration from a cultural idea of circus as identity transgression and grotesque abjection, most apparent in literature [and] in cinema. Early [new circus in the 1990’s] shows reflected a trend in new circus practice to include queer sexual identities and expand social ideas of freakish bodies. Artistic representation frequently exaggerates features of traditional circus…. (Tait 123)
What Isherwood misses is that the use of garish spectacle that makes light of an ugly world is, in fact, at the very heart of what Gardarsson is trying to express. The working-poor Woyzeck who questions, and thinks, and is criticized for thinking is ruining the Captain and the Doctor’s circus-filled party. Woyzeck’s tragedy lies in his fight to survive, to be human, in the inhuman world that surrounds him – what could be more “deeply pessimistic” (as Isherwood calls it) than a vision of the world where fighting to be human drives a man to destroy the only anchor to the world (Marie) that he ever had?
Melissa Wong best sums up the production in seeing the tragedy in a Woyzeck “who seemed in some ways to be the most humane character in the production…the one who failed to survive.” Her assessment of Gardarsson’s use of levity is that it points “to the complicity of individuals [the audience] who, as part of society, had watched Woyzeck’s life as entertainment without fully empathizing with the depth of his existential crisis” (Wong). She also rightly points out that the use of humor in the play “enabled us to access questions that in the bleakness of their full manifestation might have been too much to bear” (Wong). Tait also reminds us that the true transformative nature of circus as a medium is not what is happening with the performer, but how the experience of viewing the performer is manifest in the viewer.
Aerial motion and emotion produce sensory encounters; a spectator fleshes culturally identifiable motion, emotionally. The action of musical power creates buoyant and light motion, which corresponds with reversible body phenomenologies in the exaltation of transcendence with and of sensory experience. The aerial body mimics the sensory motion of and within lived bodies in performance of delight, joy, exhilaration, and elation. Aerial bodies in action seem ecstatic in their fleshed liveness. (Tait 152)
Here circus functions as a mechanism for translation and confrontation in a play whose thematic elements are difficult to grapple with. Vesturport’s method and execution look to find the spaces between words, and while not perfect, strive to push the audience into a fleshed and lived experience of Büchner’s play rather than a purely intellectual theatrical exercise.
Büchner, Georg. Woyzeck. Trans. Eric Bentley. New York: Samuel French, 1991.
Best, Jason.”Woyzeck | Review.” 14 October 2005. The Stage. The Stage Meida Company Limited. 3 October 2013 <www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/10047/woyzeck>.
Isherwood, Charles. Outfitting Woyzeck With a Pair of Rose-Colored Glasses. 17 October 2008. 2 October 2013 <theater.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/theater/reviews/17woyz.html>.
Pareles, Jon. “Shaking Up ‘Woyzeck’ With early Rock and Flying Trapeze.” 13 October 2008. The New York Times. <www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/arts/music/14cave.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=woyzeck&st=cse&oref=slogin&>.
Richarsdon, Stan. Woyzec nytheatre.com review. 15 October 2008. The new York Theatre Experience. 2 October 2013 <www.nytheatre.com/Review/stan-richardson-2008-10-15-woyzeck>.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Stanislawski, Ethan. Theatre Review (NYC): Woyzeck by George Buchner at UNDER St. Marks and BAM. 21 October 2008. 4 October 2013 <blogcritics.org/theater-review-nyc-woyzeck-by-georg/>.
Tait, Peta. Circus Bodies: Cultural Idenity in Aerial Performance. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Thielman, Sam. Review: “Woyzeck”. 16 October 2008. 5 October 2013 <http://variety.com/2008/legit/reviews/woyzeck-3-1200471537/>.
Vesturport. Woyzeck by Georg Buchner | A Vesturport and Reykavik City Theatre production. 15 Janruary 2000. 7 October 2013 <http://vesturport.com/theater/woyzeck-georg-buchner/>.
Wong, Melisa Wansin. “Woyzeck (review).” Theatre Journal 61.4 (2009): 638-640.
Woyzeck. Dir. Gisli Örn Gardarsson. Vesturport. Vesturport and Reykjavik City Threatre. Vesturport, 2009.