Spies Like Us presents: Woyzeck

‘The third day comes a frost, a killing frost’ Act III, Scene II, Henry VIII

Poor old Woyzeck. The most downtrodden of protagonists grows ever blearier eyed in Spies Like Us’s performance of Büchner’s unfinished great. The five-strong, conjugate troupe trims the fat from a century of pernickety tinkering by reams of authors editors and translators, cutting straight to the core, posthumously realising Büchner’s vision: Peace to the shacks! War on the palaces! Leitmotif rather than political brow-beating, Woyzeck achieves in projecting an affecting socio-historical paradigm rather than a Brechtian call-to-arms.

Very effective use of props, with little more than five buckets and a half-dozen rags, the cast seamlessly transition between vignettes with the help of slick, often powerfully-absurd, choreographies. Set to a jazzy, mid-century soundtrack, and often verging on Carreyesque, the dark humour throughout is a fitting paradox to the degradation of an honest proletarian, and deftly presents the spectrum of temporal, personal and political influences, adaptations and translations in one fell swoop.  

There is no shying away from the absurd elements of the work. Woyzeck’s subjection to Herr Doktor’s evil experiments of a three-month pea-only diet is appropriately comedically revealed; Woyzeck is examined through the poking, prodding and sniffing of scientific stooges. Moreover, classical hyperbole is avoided: the climax of Woyzeck murdering Marie is choreographed in a single swift transaction, rather than dwelling on moonlit pleading adopted in previous performances. This is intensely refreshing and suits a play that can easily get bogged down in the quick sand of catharsis.

Characterisation is masterful, and at its heart sits the incarceration of mad soldier and domestic whore, bound to each other by financial acquiescence rather than passion. Equally tragic, they express their respective woes in contrasting yet complimentary ways. Marie (Phoebe Campbell) performed her confliction between pitying loyalty to the father of her child, and flattered attraction to the generous yet ungentlemanly advances of Woyzeck’s superior officer, with nuance. Woyzeck (Alex Holley), on the other hand, projects strife far more viscerally. Flying off the handle ever more frequently, before committing the darkest of all acts, the final tableau sees him suspended in aspic, withholding from the audience the methadone of conclusion.

The callous plotting of those above Woyzeck is front and centre. The gathered bourgeoisie convene to kick Woyzeck while he’s down. Doctor, captain, shopkeeper unite to profit from Woyzeck’s chronic tribulations, and he is passed between them like a joint, sporadically having coins thrown in his direction, whilst his complexion and compos mentis disintegrates in time-lapse.

Deservedly the recipient of Theatre Weekly's 'Best Physical Theatre Show' award 2018, physicality is how this performance remains so aloof to burdensome historical context and hyperbole. Norton-Smith skilfully cuts the Woyzeckian coat to fit the cloth of the atmospheric catacombs of the Loco Klub, built by Bristol’s own Woyzecks, and now a secular crypt honouring the sacrificial strife of Victorian workers – how fitting.


Four stars

George Ruskin, Theatre & Arts Editor