WOYZECK ON THE HIGHVELD
Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 12th October, 2011
I don’t like Georg Bruchner’s original play. I’ve had to both study and teach it in my time, yet I went to this revival of Handspring Puppet Company’s production in the hope that it would show me something new and provide something entertaining or at least enlightening about it.
The action has been transposed to South Africa during the 1950s, with the characters portrayed by rod puppets. This is the most salient point: the dehumanisation of Apartheid is reflected in the fixed features of the puppets’ carved faces. Behind them, black and white animations depict the scenery but also some of the inner life of the characters, and the ever-changing shapes and pictures provide a distraction for the eye in the more static scenes.
Trouble is, it’s all a bit….wooden. Moments of beauty (the little baby being put to bed) are rare; even rarer the chance to engage with the characters. The problem lies not with the puppets or their skilled operators, but with the script. It’s not clear at times what is going on. Better exposition and fewer baffling lines of dialogue would help us identify Woyzeck’s plight and what drives him to commit murder.
The show begins with a “barker”, a human actor (Mncedisi Shabangu) who invites us all to enjoy the show via a megaphone. He is a sort of narrator-type who crops up periodically. He is an appealing presence, with his rolling eyes, commanding voice and cheeky patter but he doesn’t shed any light in what is going on. When the end comes, in a sudden burst of anti-climax, he turns to the audience and sucks his teeth in contempt. Charming.
If you want a story of Man’s corruption via authority figures and social class, where he has no recourse but to turn to crime and immorality, enacted by puppets, this country had one centuries before Bruchner wrote his play. It is iconoclastic, irreverent, outrageous and funny, revealing more about Man’s place in society than tonight’s artful but empty experience could ever hope. I am talking of course of Judy before she married Richard.