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Sarah Greene and John Boyega in “Woyzeck” at the Old Vic: Adaptations are particularly susceptible to directorial over-reaching (©Manuel Harlan)


British people are living through troubled times, but when it comes to the performing arts, they can still hold up their heads. In the realms of canonical theatre and classical music in particular, our cultural centres are among the leaders in the field. But there is a striking and perhaps widening difference in the respective conventions which govern the way in which these two genres are presented; and this difference raises aesthetic questions of importance to both.

Let’s start with Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck. This is an extraordinary piece. He wrote it in the last months of a life which lasted for little more than 23 years. Although the fragmentary and episodic text covers only 25 pages, it is huge in scope and subject-matter. It is almost impossible to believe that it was written (in 1836-37) hard on the heels of Goethe’s death; it seems to belong to quite another age. The play expresses social and existential themes that more naturally belong in the 20th century, but if it anticipates Samuel Beckett, it also looks back to King Lear: Woyzeck inhabits the deranged and anarchic world into which that greatest of plays disintegrates in acts III and IV. It is unquestionably a masterpiece.

So when it was announced last year that a new production was to be staged at the Old Vic, aficionados sped to the box office. Unfortunately, they were wasting their time and money. An early sign that all was not well came with the announcement that this was to be a “new version” of Büchner’s play. This is a formulation which one has learned to treat with circumspection. In the programme, the play’s adapter, Jack Thorne, expressed the desire to create a version — of this most approachable and timeless of plays — which would be accessible to a new audience. The theatre’s website spoke of breathing fresh life into “one of the most extraordinary plays ever written”, apparently oblivious to the fact that if Woyzeck merited that description (as it does), it was in no need of emergency resuscitation.  

It is enough to say that what was put on stage was an almost unrecognisable travesty, which appeared entirely to subvert the purposes of the original, as well as profaning its luminous beauty. This was not a case of a writer using another person’s work or an existing source as a point of departure to create an original art work of his own. In such a case, the later creation is independent, and seeks to be judged on its own merits. It may be a vast and poetic expansion of the source text, as with The Winter’s Tale. It may be a reworking of a mythological theme, as with the many iterations of the Faust legend. Or it may be a consciously inferior tribute, as with P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. There are many such instances, and they are in principle legitimate. By contrast, what the Old Vic unequivocally announced was a new version of Büchner’s play. What was actually offered wasn’t Büchner at all; it was a desecration.

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