Before I begin today's sermon, it might be worth pondering for a moment the meaning of "masterpiece". My favourite definition, which comes from the great American poet Randall Jarrell's consideration of the great Australian novelist Christina Stead, is that a masterpiece is a work with something wrong with it; which reminds me, tangentially, of how Persian carpet makers always put a mistake into their work, so they will not offend God by presuming to rival His perfection. It’s lovely weather, Captain, such a beautiful solid grey sky, makes you want to hammer in a piece of wood and hang yourself from it. All because of that little dash between yes and no. Yes - and no, Captain, yes and no? Did No make Yes or Yes make No? Oh, I need to think about that... It's that moment of fracture that is written large here. This is art that offers no redemption, but we ought to know by now that the idea that beauty might redeem anything was always a self-serving and manipulative lie. What I do know is that I walked out of the show thinking to myself that Woyzeck is as great a play as has been written. A masterpiece, in fact. A shorter version of this review will no doubt appear in the Australian in due course. Pictures: (Top) Socratis Otto as Woyzeck; (Bottom) Left to right - Tom Rogers, Merfyn Owen and Marco Chiappi. Photograph: Jeff Busby Woyzeck by George Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until February 28.
A masterpiece is, on the one hand, an act of hubris, a work of poiesis that challenges the assumed perfection of God's universe. On the other, what matters most in the midst of this act of making, the element that makes the heart beat faster in its encountering, is the flaw in the glass, the necessary imperfection of beauty.
Considering ideal perfection in his exemplary short story Lenz, Georg Büchner wrote: "Only one thing abides: an infinite beauty that passes from form to form, eternally changed and revealed afresh, although you can't always capture it and stick it in museums or put it into music ... You need to love mankind to be able to reach the essential being of each individual, you must consider no one too lowly, no one too ugly .... the most ordinary of faces makes a deeper impression than any contrived sensation of beauty..." This is still, two centuries later, a revolutionary statement.
Which brings me to Woyzeck, the ur-play of modern theatre that is at once a work of revolutionary realism and of jagged poetic beauty. There are two major schools of thought on this play, both of which are completely valid, except when the extremes of one blot out the possibilities of the other. One is the school that sees Woyzeck as a major work of critical social realism, and annoints Büchner as the precursor of playwrights like Franz Xavier Kroetz. The other places it as a seminal work of German Expressionism, foreshadowing writers like Franz Wedekind.
As is the case with those rare works that can be authentically called masterpieces, both are correct. This complex provenance is illustrated by the history of the play. Woyzeck was still in progress when Büchner died of typhus in 1837, at the ridiculously young age of 23. The play languished in obscurity for decades until it was premiered by Gerhart Hauptmann - the leading dramatist of German Naturalism - in Munich in 1913. When Alban Berg used the play as the basis for his famous opera, which premiered in Berlin in 1925, the work's place in the canon was assured.
That Woyzeck was championed by both the Naturalists and the Expressionists, movements usually considered to be at each other’s aesthetic throats, is an indication of Büchner's range, his ability to absorb what superficially seem to be contradictory impulses. Like Ibsen, whose work influenced writers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, Büchner is at once a realist and a poet. And like Shakespeare, whom he fervently admired, his work is impossible to confine in a single ideology.
His complementary impulses are nowhere clearer than in Woyzeck, which must be among the most disputed literary texts ever. There has been endless shuffling of the scenes as different interpreters attempt to divine Büchner’s intent; I have four different versions on my desk as I write. This formal instability, married to the undeniable brilliance of its writing, makes it arguably the most influential single play of European theatre, and it's commonly positioned as the beginning of modern drama.
Yet it's hardly ever done here. Our brethren bloggers in New York might be calling for a five-year moratorium on the text, but in Melbourne it's not like we're tripping over productions every week. Or even every year. My performance experience is limited to Barrie Kosky's exhilarating production of Alban Berg's opera for the AO in 1999 and Werner Herzog's film, featuring the psychotic performance of Klaus Kinski. Plus whatever imaginary performances have peopled my head whenever I've read the variously ordered versions.
The Malthouse's production of this new adaptation is thus a keenly anticipated event. A bold take by Icelandic playwright Gisli Örn Gardarsson, it features songs and music by Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. The provenance is in fact a little muddy - Gardarsson's original production by his Reykjavik-based Vesturport Theatre seems, from squinting through its various reviews, to have erred rather on the side of spectacle. It also cut out some elements of the play (Marie's child was, for example, mystifyingly absent) and was also accompanied by pre-recorded music, albeit with the voice of Cave.
In the Social Realist/Expressionist equation, Michael Kantor’s passionate production comes down squarely for the Expressionist tradition. All the same, it seems to me that Kantor has stemmed the spectacular excesses of Gardarsson's work, which was heavily circus-based, injecting it with some necessary realism. He restores to the play its original unruliness and many of the cut scenes, and the emphasis is on performance, with the music, orchestrated by Peter Farnan, played live on stage by a tight band. It's a sexy, exciting and ultimately moving production, treading (if sometimes with a few wobbles) the narrow margin between spectacle and intimacy. But perhaps its greatest achievement is that, for all its technical complexity and rock’n’roll energy, Büchner’s text shines through, luminous and clear and sharp as an open razor.
Gardarsson’s adaptation chimes with the standard scholarship, beginning with the disturbing scene at the quarry that is generally agreed (by those who argue about these things in obscure cafes on the Continent, scratching their bunions and polishing their pince-nez) as the most likely - and certainly, the most dramaturgically satisfying - place to begin. An innovation is the introduction of the Entertainer, a kind of Mephistophelean narrator cobbled out of lines from other characters and played by singer Tim Rogers. It is Rogers's first time in a play, but I wager it won't be his last: his presence is electrifying, bringing a devilish Keith Richards physicality to the stage. There's a man who knows where his towel is.
Nick Cave as the lyricist is a no-brainer. It's hard to think of a contemporary rock musician whose work would be more appropriate to this play's tragic glamour. The high romanticism of Cave's driving murder ballads sit brilliantly in the text, vamping up its heightened vernacular. The music is much more deeply integrated into the performance than I expected – this is almost an opera, with scenes scored through with brooding electric violins, throbbing guitar solos and menacing percussion. Here music works as the theatre's blood, pumping oxygen through each scene and driving the staged rhythms.
Peter Corrigan's monstrous modernist set confirms the aggressive, in-yer-face tenor of this production. Corrigan has created a multi-level architectural construction that unabashedly draws on the excesses of Expressionism as well as the Vorticist fantasies of Wyndham Lewis to create the hollowed-out, broken earth of Woyzeck's hallucinations. Its nightmare geometries are lit sumptuously by Paul Jackson - jarring greens and reds and blues, corpselights and blood, which contrast with gentler, intimate ambers. It's an outrageous design, offensive, rude and sometimes incredibly beautiful. (And I hear too that in the very front rows it obscures a fair bit of the stage action - so be warned).
Kantor has cast a wide net in his cast, exploiting a variety of performance styles, and here his gift for excess is reigned in with a surprising subtextual discipline, with mostly rich results. Where this production misses out, at least on opening night, is in the emotional detailing of some scenes. When that detailing is there, it really hits the mark. There are moments such as a scene between Andre (Hamish Michael being quietly brilliant) and Woyzeck (Socratis Otto), or a moving admission of shame from Marie (Bojana Novakovic), where I felt my skin go cold or my heart leap into my mouth.
Without this detail, the characters are in danger of being emotionally generalised puppets; but there is enough complexity already present to make me suspect that the sketched-in scenes will fill out as the season progresses. Meanwhile, filling up the stage are performances of bravura grotesquerie from Marco Chiappi as the Drum Major, Merfyn Owen as the Captain (looking rather like a Roman soldier from the Asterix comics) and Mitchell Butel as the sadistic and obsessed Doctor, who generate a vision of orgiastic paganism that is like the worst party you've ever attended. And I've already mentioned Tim Rogers.
The ill-fated lovers Woyzeck and Marie are played as naifs destroyed by a predatory and exploitative society. Interestingly, the actors who play them - Socratis Otto and Bojana Novakovic - are the only performers who are not singers, in a cast that is otherwise pretty gifted in the voice department. I felt ambivalent about this decision, and still do: but I admit that it's dramatically powerful, highlighting their vulnerability and, by extension, the ambivalence of the whole act of performance.
In fact, a sense of restless ambivalence, even contradiction, rives this show and generates a lot of its energy. For this reason among others I feel absolutely certain that this is a production that will provoke serious arguments. It's too jagged not to: it has flair, spectacle, emotional excess, even the odd dubious decision (why the bombs?), drawn together into one unlikely and surprisingly cogent whole. But I liked it a lot.
To return to my beginning, it seems to me that Kantor's Woyzeck has the friable sense of "beauty that passes from form to form" that Büchner described in Lenz. It's a beauty which dramatises with disconcerting clarity how little it takes for our self-preserving illusions to break open and reveal a comfortless and hollow reality. As Woyzeck says:
It’s lovely weather, Captain, such a beautiful solid grey sky, makes you want to hammer in a piece of wood and hang yourself from it. All because of that little dash between yes and no. Yes - and no, Captain, yes and no? Did No make Yes or Yes make No? Oh, I need to think about that...
It's that moment of fracture that is written large here. This is art that offers no redemption, but we ought to know by now that the idea that beauty might redeem anything was always a self-serving and manipulative lie. What I do know is that I walked out of the show thinking to myself that Woyzeck is as great a play as has been written. A masterpiece, in fact.
A shorter version of this review will no doubt appear in the Australian in due course.
Pictures: (Top) Socratis Otto as Woyzeck; (Bottom) Left to right - Tom Rogers, Merfyn Owen and Marco Chiappi. Photograph: Jeff Busby
Woyzeck by George Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until February 28.