This summer, in situ: presents The Woyzeck Project, an interpretation of the unfinished work by George Buechner, which we will be performing in the Cambridge Leper Chapel. Here, Susan Quilliam speaks to director Richard Spaul who explains his choice, his approach – and how the work may be a challenging experience for audience members.
Richard, the play has a curious history, doesn’t it?
The history of the play, and its unlikely survival, is almost as remarkable as the play itself. The playwright, German dramatist George Buechner, had written it only in note form – but then became involved in pro-democracy revolutionary activity, went on the run from government forces, and died of typhus in 1837. His work was discovered in a jumble of papers as fragments of scenes and conversations – he apparently had appalling handwriting and it was not even clear clear in what order the fragments should be performed.
Buechner’s brother Ludwig originally thought the notes worthless, but nevertheless kept them safe, and the work was eventually published in 1879 – more than 40 years after the author’s death – being first performed only in 1913. Since then, however, it has gained a reputation as an intensely compelling piece.
Why did you choose Woyzeck?
I’ve known the play for many years but never produced it until now. It deals with very powerful themes – poverty, distress, jealousy, the dreadful impact of debilitating mental illness. In particular, it explores the way in which a toxic mix of hardship, neglect and social deprivation can result in horrendous violence. It seems almost miraculous than anyone could have written it at that time in history, let alone a 22-year-old on the run from the authorities!
In fact, one of Woyzeck’s attractions for me is how modern it seems. Its brevity and disjointedness, lack of linear plot, weird characters and bursts of violence appealed greatly to artists in the early 20th century – for instance, Alban Berg’s 1922 opera Wozzeck is a response to the text. And the language seems incredibly modern to have been written in the 1830s – it doesn’t resemble anything that I know of from that period.
Thematically too, the play was ahead of its time. Woyzeck’s partner Marie, who is also the mother of his child, lives in great poverty and has relationships with other men. She appears to be on the edge of prostitution, as a great many women were in that era, and those around her seem to think that is pretty normal. But Woyzeck – in a frightening prefigurement of individuals such as Peter Sutcliffe – takes it into his head that Marie needs to be killed to atone for her sin. This is in direct contrast to the trite moralising of Buechner’s socially-concerned contemporaries such as Dickens.
Untypically for his age, Buechner takes a good hard look at a very difficult, unjust and imperfect world.
How have you developed Buechner’s fragments into the finished version in situ: is performing?
Woyzeck supplies us with a great deal of freedom and scope to develop and devise. We can ask questions such as: Should the audience be plunged into nightmare when they walk through the door and into the performance? Should they see the action through the eyes and ears of the mentally-ill and distressed central character? What order shall we do the scenes – do we repeat or loop them? There are so many exciting possibilities, meaning that we can make very imaginative use of our setting, the unconventional site of the Leper Chapel.
The performance has gone through three distinct phases. Some of us started work in autumn 2017 on the general theme of Tragedy; we looked at Mask, Ritual and Chorus to explore what we found most interesting.
In the second stage we have focussed more on the play itself, developing those themes with regard to Woyzeck. We’ve explored other aspects too, notably German Expressionism with its emphasis on the violent, the nightmarish, the angst-producing. We’re doing that through movement, voice, environment and character, giving us many possible approaches.
Our final phase involves working on site in the Leper Chapel, honing everything down to the finished production; for all its strangeness Woyzeck has a very identifiable tragic structure which we intend to bring out, whilst also making the most of our year’s explorations. It’s a long and varied process – but very rewarding.
Woyzeck is not a pretty tale. What challenges do you think it might present for the audience?
The challenge is that our production is a very full-on experience. The audience will not be in rows on seats. They will be moving around the space very close to the performers, and so they will experience a rather nightmarish world at very close quarters. I find that exciting and welcome that sort of intensity – not everybody does, but quite a few people do.
So I think our work will appeal to those who want to experience something out of the ordinary – and something of more than ordinary intensity and intimacy.
If the weather is cold, you are advised to wrap up warmly as this venue has no heating; toilets are nearby but not on site.