What is it about Georg Buchner's 19th play that continues to exercise such fascination for modern theatre companies? In the past few years there have been at least three significant revivals presented in Britain - two by international companies, neither of them German. Perhaps this is part of the appeal; although there is a clear narrative, it seems that the script itself is not especially highly regarded. Woyzeck seems to be that rarest of things - a play which communicates through a series of events and actions, rather than by its conversations and speeches.
Nowhere is this point more powerfully made than in Korean company Sadari Movement Laboratory’s new production, which scarcely includes more than ten words of English. Instead, a majority of the production is communicated through dance and movement.
However, while the movement manages to communicate the story effectively, it doesn’t ever really cross the divide between telling the tale and making you care about any of the characters or what happens to them. Woyzeck’s chaotic and miserable life looks as nasty, brutish and short as it ever does, but his relationship with Maria and her subsequent betrayal of him with an army captain is deeply underpowered. Their relationship is barely established on stage before she goes off with her new lover, so it is more difficult to credit Woyzeck’s ultimately murderous rage which this precipitates. Maria’s motivations also seem more obscure than ever, particularly since there seems to be little to choose between the two men in this instance.
That said, there is still much here to admire. The skills pressed into service of telling the story are quite extraordinary - in one sequence where Woyzeck is experimented on by a crazed doctor the performer, Jae-Won Kwon, lies supported by two chairs at his shoulders and feet, and remains rigid; almost suspended in mid-air. That this lasts for about five minutes is even more startling. There is also some hugely inventive use of lighting and chairs to create some memorable stage pictures. However, for all this invention, the heart of the piece remains cold - even potentially mystifying for those unfamiliar with the story.