The last few years have signalled important, and exciting, changes in the approach to new Australian theatre writing that have, in turn, helped support a new generation of writers now on the cusp of local and international breakthrough. And while the changes have come from many levels; the continued resurgence of independent theatre, restructured and rethought bodies such as PlayWriting Australia and so forth; not all writers are satisfied with the direction that the bigger theatre institutions have taken. The transformation of Playbox into the Malthouse is, really, ancient history – it happened well before I even arrived in Melbourne. And yet frustration, even thinly veiled bitterness, remains fresh in those who so freely spurt about the glory days of Melbourne theatre and exactly what it was that the Playbox represented. I cannot test their claims, but I can see why the Malthouse season opener Woyzeck stands in such stark opposition to their writers’ theatre: this extraterrestrial oddity of a performance is an exercise across genre, discipline and form in which the writing definitely takes the backseat.
That is not reason to dislike Michael Kantor’s Woyzeck by any means. It is a very useful demonstration of the musical-hybrid-performance-piece model that the Malthouse has been developing, maybe even perfecting, over the past few years under his artistic directorship. Their offering of a unique, more contemporary, more encompassing approach to dramaturgy has been central to their attempts to draw younger people back to ‘theatre’, to entice them with more than talking heads, easily spotted plot points and text. Really, to make theatre cool. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the casting of perpetual Melbourne rocker Tim Rodgers of You Am I, shaggy locks and sweaty gaunt rockstar sex, in what turns out to be a disappointingly peripheral (albeit heavily promoted and publicised) role. Yelling out to the youth of Melbourne that there’s a new kind of edgy rock-theatre on the street, scored in part by Nick Cave to boot, certainly appears to have succeeded in the case of Woyzeck. The production which I attended on a Wednesday night was close to full, and the majority of attendees looked younger than forty (though I suppose it is debatable how such conclusions are reached – my twentysomething brother dresses with an uncanny resemblance to Joseph McCarthy after all). But the more important question that comes to my mind is – will they come back?
What surprised me most about Woyzeck was how much it surprised me. For a play which I had been told was the darkest of fables, with a heavy, unremitting bleakness at its heart, I was caught entirely off guard by the extravagance and excess of Kantor’s reimagining. I had expected a dark, moody theatrical experience; indeed, the opening tableaux and song, in which the depth of Peter Corrigan’s surreally sculpted set was revealed and the live musicians, accompanying Rogers’ warble, were cast in rich orange, seemed to suggest as much. I was genuinely excited; We Will Rock You this ain’t. And yet, as the play powered on, my expectations coming into the Merlyn and again stirred on by the opening were never quite met; song after song, fragment after fragment, Woyzeck couldn’t seem to quite fulfil, or really engage much, with its promise. I found myself becoming agitated and bored, particularly with what felt to me to be a real lack of sincerity that had, instead, been substituted with an overwhelming self-consciousness. I was surprised, with all the fantastical elements in place, the names attached, the set and the music, with just how hard I was having to work in order to remain remotely connected, let alone stimulated or entertainted, with this Woyzeck.
Georg Büchner’s narrative about a poor young soldier, Woyzeck (Socratis Otto), forced into odd jobs by his Captain and bizarre laboratory experiments by the Doctor in order to support his mistress (Bojana Novakovic) and their illegitimate child, is, on the page, a morbidly poetic exploration of morality, class and consequence. Unfinished at the time of his typhus-related death in 1837, the vivid and fragmentary nature of Büchner’s prose becomes disturbingly apparent as Woyzeck, on a diet of only peas, succumbs to his paranoia and psychotic visions, eventually committing a tragic act. The play, in this adaptation by Gisli Örn Gardasson (having been rewritten and ‘finished’ many times by other authors), ends on a suitably ambiguous, amoral note. Woyzeck is thus the kind of work always ripe for reimagining, with something, potentially, always to say about the context of its performance.
It is hardly a wonder, then, that midnight Gothic stalwarts such as Cave would be attracted to such material; indeed, it is his and Warren Ellis’ songs, performed so tantalisingly by Rogers, that suit the snippets of Woyzeck’s descent so well. To their credit, I should probably disclose at this point that generally, I am not a fan of musicals. I find that the ‘dramatic’ or narrative elements of representation in theatre are often done a disservice, or deliberately covered over, by the use of characters breaking-into-song. It is only in exceptional circumstances where the two are harmonised – where there exists not only strong actor-led music, but strong benefits to the drama for the music to happen. I give kudos to the idea of this Woyzeck – I think that Kantor and the creative team’s concept, and the ambition surrounding it is bold. It does also work in tandem with the play’s substance. But, and this is perhaps where my bias starts to filter in, I was not convinced with the way in which Kantor directed the fragments of dramatic material between the songs, and indeed, sometimes inside the songs. Their realisation, and the way that they have been dramaturged in the context of this interpretation of Woyzeck, is really where the play comes undone. It is where, perhaps, the play loses sight of what it is actually trying to be.
The highly stylised, self-conscious approach of Kantor is an odd juxtaposition for the quite serious and philosophical ground being covered by Woyzeck, and yet at the same time, it is immediately the most obvious choice for him. Complete with oodles of plastic play props, flashing fluorescent lights, skimpy cabaret costumes, Santa suits and vaudevillian antics galore, Kantor has envisaged that the most appropriate way to bring new life to Woyzeck’s journey is to subvert the darkness with a camp, villainous, fairtytale-gone-wrong aesthetic. There is no denying that it looks good – even if this style is becoming a little too synonymous with him, maybe even stale. But the more serious problem is glaring: in this instance, at least, there is a complete triumph of style over substance. The experience of sitting through Woyzeck is, quite like the cruel journey of its protagonist, absurd. Kantor’s solution to the challenges, both thematic and structural, posed by fragments is to present them quickly, with a maximum of exaggerated choreography and spectacle, revealing plenty of previously concealed set pieces along the way. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is when, shortly after a musical interlude, a group of musicians, donned in grotesque masks, suddenly appeared above the set in a rig half resembling an opera box, half resembling a deus ex machina. It is unashamedly, confrontationally, theatrical and referential; but for what real purpose in the piece? More broadly speaking, could this Kantor formula simply be reapplied to whatever dark myth the Malthouse stumbles across next, without adding to, or really engaging with, the actual content of the story?
I couldn’t help being reminded of Richard Foreman’s Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty (who strangely enough has directed his own Woyzeck), except even amongst all the crossed symbols and iconography of that very contextual play, I found myself aware of its focus, wit and restraint. In Woyzeck, I was thrown by the excess, excess, excess. I kept thinking that I was meant to be looking somewhere. And what I wanted most from the experience, and what I believe would have served both the music and the story better, would have been an attempt to really grapple with the text and Woyzeck and his mistress’ predicament; to explore it, let it breathe and not layer on top every missile of the Malthouse arsenal. Kantor’s approach alienated and isolated me from the issues at the core of the narrative; indeed, the extravagance and self-consciousness actually worked to trivialise them. While there were a handful of moving moments, such as Woyzeck’s monologue in the pond following the tragedy, they were for me few and far between. That is not to diminish the efforts of the cast, who are by-and-large up for the challenges of this production, nor the musical interludes, but rather the ‘style’ of Woyzeck on the whole. Seldom have I had a more frustrating night in the Merlyn, and I wonder whether the experience may have been more suited to a smaller, cabaret venue, set amongst the sounds of bar staff and a few stiff drinks.
But this is the new Malthouse, and it will be interesting to see how the numbers add up at the end of the run – whether this critically acclaimed, to quite the extent in some instances, experiment in ‘new’ theatre pays off. The real test, I suppose, is the longevity of any success with youth. Whether this is what will keep them coming back, or like anything immediately ‘cool’, it will soon disappear into the backwaters of obscurity as they search for the next hit thing.
Woyzeck runs until Feb 28th, Malthouse Theatre, Southbank. See http://www.malthousetheatre.com.au for tickets and more information.