The Voices Off series at the Old Vic is described as ‘a series of talks, debates, workshops and conversations’ held at the beautiful Old Vic theatre. On Thursday, I attended a talk titled ‘On Nature’ that delved into the makings and meanings behind the Old Vic’s current mesmerising play, Woyzeck starring the enigmatic John Boyega.
With around 100 people in attendance at this intimate event, we were joined by Matthew Warchus, the Artistic Director of The Old Vic, Joe Murphy, the director of Woyzeck, and Professor Laura Marcus, professor of English Literature at Oxford University. Absent was Anthony Julius, Deputy Chairman of Mishcon de Reya, who presented this talk in association with the Old Vic. They sat in front of the stage’s curtain as we sat unassigned in the stalls.
I learnt many things about this exciting play from this talk and the first thing I found particularly fascinating was about how massively the script was adapted. The original script was written by Georg Büchner in 1836, but due to his untimely death in 1837 the script remained unfinished and in fragments.
Many different productions in the last 100 years have adapted it with different interpretations but this script by Jack Thorne is likely the boldest yet, setting it in 1980s Berlin and around the British Army’s part in the defence of the Berlin Wall. This more modern take on an 19th century story meant that a lot of the story is completely new and delves into more modern ideas of mental illness and poverty and how that affects the working class who do not have access to basic needs. Complete with a 10 minute duologue that closes off act one, and an entire manic monologue in German (an exert from Büchner’s original script), it takes you on a journey from your average British working class dialogue to, as Woyzeck’s madness heightens, something almost poetic and inhuman. This script, as well as the impressive staging and set, gives the audience a unique look into Woyzeck’s head as his health worsens.
The staging and set was talked about too. The set is very simple, as it is with most modern theatre, with insulation-covered walls being lifted up and down by wires to represent the ever-changing setting with some even having a gruesome surprise inside. The director, Joe Murphy, spoke about these walls representing the Berlin Wall. The staging, whilst looking chaotic, is actually very meticulously planned and has actually been changed since the first previews. I was lucky enough to see it at its very first preview and then again midway through it’s run (which ends on June 25th) and one difference I noted was the absence of a strange, lucid dance sequence in act one. This was no accident I learned, as Murphy explained that they eventually found it just one step too weird, especially for the first act.
Matthew Warchus, the Artistic Director at the Old Vic, talked a lot about the issues of class difference portrayed in Woyzeck, which led to the casting of John Boyega. They wanted an actor for Woyzeck who was young, able to take on such an emotionally and physically demanding role, and came from a working class background. Boyega, who grew up in Peckham and who’s debut performance was in 2011’s Attack the Block, set in a South London council estate, was the immediate first choice. As someone who has been a fan of Boyega since his first movie, I thought this was a genius casting decision for this adaptation and made even more sense with this explanation.
Warchus also talked about how Woyzeck is the start of a new direction in how the Old Vic presents itself, doing more modern plays and appealing to a wider, younger audience. You can definitely see that in the posters and pamphlets around the theatre, presenting a cleaner and bolder design. Although the Old Vic is, well, old, I believe this will bring it into a new era and bring new possibilities and opportunities for a wider range of theatre to be presented on such a stunning stage.
I really loved this production and learning more about it in such an intimate setting, with which we could ask any questions we may have, was a great experience. I’m excited to see more from Joe Murphy and Jack Thorne and of course, John Boyega, who puts on one of the most extraordinary and captivating performances I’ve ever seen on stage in my lifetime.