Woyzeck, Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Buchner’s fragmented tragedy of jealousy and madness is rightly regarded as an existentialist masterpiece. It’s
just not usually this funny. Splendid Productions confidently break down the bleak text, twisting it into a dark,
anarchic music hall act that’s equal parts Brecht and Monty Python. Seamlessly splicing physicality, wicked
asides and warm audience interaction, these three superb performers inject the show with wit, pathos and
tremendous energy. It’s hilarious and horrific, erotic and brutal, and the hairpin emotional shifts could easily feel
forced in less confident hands. Here though it’s never less than enthralling, held together with perfect timing,
self assured ad-libs and a spot-on chimpanzee impression. This is a powerful, unsettling experience and a
frankly brilliant performance.
Before the play begins the three actors (Scott Smith, Kerry Frampton & Jimmy Whiteaker) are playing for us and with us, offering jovial enticements to engage. Their games are declared, we are all in the same room, there is dialogue back and forth, Whiteaker picks up on a audience response and plays with it. I find myself cast as a doctor. We are in the world of theatrical clown.
The company proceeds through the show’s unknown and unknowable order with playful brutality, rich tones of character and a rhythm that feels like rough tree bark dripping with grease. They paint a sumptuous portrait of the power of command and emotional turmoil over the broken Woyzeck. These are delicious grotesques, the pair of Doctors perverted, Frampton’s Captain corpulent and putrescent, a hobbled and creaking Woyzeck captured by Smith. Technically joyful, with points of play and dialog lined with precise fixed points, tactile stillness amid the stylised play.
There is tenderness mixed with aggression, the world is bleak, devoid of hope, the crimes recurrent, the passions deep and sinuous. You get a sense of each performer’s personal voice, there is no bland style rather each brings to the stage their idiosyncratic personal energy. There is delicacy too in the scenes of Woyzeck and Marie, adding pathos to the biblical jealousy and calm ruination of the final scene.
There is pleasure behind every moment of this show and from this joy we see the sparks of destructive rage and annihilating authority.
In their rendering of Büchner’s unfinished text, Splendid Productions adopt a playful timbre that sees them skip between scenes, co-opt the audience as the rumour mongers, and gleefully demonstrate the mechanisms behind their skilful stagecraft: as Kerry Frampton gleefully cries ‘Scott’s started now, can’t you tell? There’s been a tonal shift!’
The ensemble’s familiarity with the spirit of clowning allows them to interact playfully with their audience, on whom they never dim the lights. There is never any doubt that the show is in good hands, and between the acerbic wit of the production and the delighted audience there is a clear investment from the company in giving the audience plenty of ideas to consider, but stopping short of telling them what to think. In his Pythonesque turn as the grandmother, Jimmy Whiteaker turns an unexpected burst of laughter from the audience into a jumping off point for further comic improvisation.
The direction by Mal Smith, Matt Wilde and Lucy Cuthbertson makes for a slick production, peppered with engaging details: foley-style sound effects, the almost mechanical eating of peas by Scott Smith’s Woyzeck, and the vividly realised caricatures of the Doctor and Captain performed by Frampton. Splendid Productions strike an energetic balance of playful and clever, with enough detail to keep you thinking well after the hour has passed.
After seeing Splendid Productions’ ‘Adam and Eve: the Musical’ at the Fringe in 2013, this aptly named company has become a Darkchat favourite. With no fear of tackling major themes, this year the company has turned its attention to the German play ‘Woyzeck‘. This is a grim tale by Georg Büchner, published in fragments after the writer’s death in the 1830s (thanks Wikipedia) and the uncompleted nature of the play means there has always been scope for innovative staging.
Splendid Productions’ approach is to present a series of jauntily captioned scenes – not performed chronologically – with the climactic scene performed several times during the course of the play. This repetition provides some bleak punctuation to the piece which is laced with dark humour by these accomplished performers.
The audience was drawn in from the start with some very effective interaction (men in the audience with moustaches being particularly singled out for attention) and we were subtly encouraged to see Woyzeck through the prism of the other main protagonists on the stage. The talented cast of three employed clowning and puppetry to tell the story and this approach certainly didn’t detract from the bleakness of the piece and gave greater impact to the violence at its heart which brought gasps of shock from the audience. On the day Darkchat attended, there was a large group of teenagers in the audience and to hold their attention so effectively was quite a feat.
Woyzeck is one of those plays I’ve long felt that I really should have got around to seeing by now but wasn’t sure whether German expressionist theatre was for me. I’m grateful to Splendid Productions as not only have I been able to cross this play off my list but thoroughly enjoyed the experience. ‘Waiting for Godot’ is next for me and hopefully Splendid Productions will soon be looking for a new project?
Whatever Splendid Productions choses, I hope to see this talented company at the Fringe next year. Splendid work, as ever!  East Coast FM,25 August 2014
There is audience engagement as soon as we enter – three white faced actors roam around the room welcoming us, engaging us in conversation, passing us notes which we are exhorted to pass along our neighbours “to start a rumour”. It is all part of the story as we will find out later and it helps to engage our attention from the outset.
Woyzeck is loosely based on a true story and is an unfinished work written in 1836 by Georg Buchner which has since become a classic of German and world theatre. It tells the story of lowly soldier Franz Woyzeck who, already struggling to support his partner and child and struggling to survive the dehumanising effects of army life, agrees to take part in military medical experiments to earn more money. It tips him over the edge into a spiral of jealousy, passion and paranoia which ultimately leads to the murder of his lover. Heavy stuff which could lead to some quite dark and depressing theatre going, but this talented trio of actors manage to tell the story in a very different way with a mix of slapstick comedy and song as well as tragedy and pathos.
The full story is gradually revealed to us through a literally random sequence of scenes – the scene number and title is announced and displayed on a board at the side of the stage. We start with the murder of Marie – Chapter 19, The Death of a Woman, and then work backwards and forwards to explain the events leading to this tragic outcome and its aftermath.
Kerry Frampton and Jimmy Whiteaker take on multiple roles with Scott Smith as Woyzeck and all three are excellent, able to move effortlessly from comedy to tragedy and able to get us all involved, making us complicit in the act. By joining in the chorus of Stab the Bitch Dead, we find that we are the voices in Woyzeck’s head encouraging him to do the deed.
If your only experience of Woyzeck has been through school or college drama productions, then don’t be put off – this is a very different interpretation which entertains as well as engages the emotions. Well worth a look.