stage director


Woyzeck “In Search for Your Self”

Tatiana Komanava (Post Factum)

“Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner.
Director – Monika Dobrowlanska
Scenographer – Alena Igrusha
The Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama
In: Art (Mastctvo), Minsk, September 2007

Looking at the Belarusian theatre repertory of the past seasons one gets an impression like it or not that the state theatres and private theatre enterprises have switched their roles and place in the society. The state and national theatres have rushed into the search for entertainment, assuming that the contemporary spectator comes to the theatre in order to forget his everyday problems, have fun and leave with a light head. Hence the predominance of attractive model-type actresses wearing chic exotic costumes (as if on the catwalk!), extremely expensive sets (to impress with luxury) and soulful stories about unfortunate love (audience is always capable to sympathize with lovers’ bad luck).

At the same time our private theatre initiatives, having satiated their strive “to be called a theatre” and having done enough in the recently popular “3-man set” production format that came from Moscow and St. Petersburg, are now turning their attention to works of serious if not to say classical repertory. For instance, our Contemporary Art Theatre has offered to its audience “A Respectable Wedding” by the theorist of the epic theatre Bertolt Brecht, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, Alexander Vampilov’s “The Elder Son”. And this summer, during theatre “vacations” production centre “Magic” brought to the audience of the Belarusian capital an opening of “Woyzeck” based on the play by the German playwright Georg Büchner, directed by Monika Dobrowlanska (Poland/Germany).
The name of Monika Dobrowlanska is known to Belarusian theatre fans. She already took part in the “On-Line” theatre project, during which she directed the production of Pavel Prazhko’s “Give me a ticket”. One also remembers her mono-performance “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol, in which the leading part was played by Belarusian actor Anatol’ Kot. Yet our audience hardly knows the work of the German romanticist Georg Büchner. At least “Woyzeck” has never been produced in Belarus.

Speaking about the biography of this play (one of 3 drama works of the author, who died of typhus at the age of 24) it’s worth mentioning that it saw the world only 40 years after Büchner’s death. The manuscript of the still unfinished play was found with no page numbers; moreover the ink had faded so severely that the text could be deciphered only after applying some special chemical solutions (which had basically destroyed the manuscript paper).

Büchner’s work has seen a few interesting interpretations – from Werner Herzog’s film classic starring Klaus Kinski to almost absurdist production by Bob Wilson with dolls as heroes (music for the show was written by Tom Waits, which put together an unusual orchestra from marimba, banjo, clarinet, trumpet, glockenspiel, cello, percussion, bass and piccolo flute).

Among some bright performances of the past years one can consider “Woyzeck” by Yuri Butusov (a director from St. Petersburg and the winner of “Golden Mask” prize) in the Lensovet theatre. The brilliant trio of popular St. Petersburg actors adored by the house and the director himself made up the show’s backbone: a famous “movie star” Konstantin Khabensky as the fool Carl, the eternal “special agent” Mikhail Parechenkov as Captain, and the not less famous in the post-soviet region as Mr. Volkov “the cop” – Mikhail Trukhin, as Woyzeck. Critics said this tragifarce to be probably the liveliest production of the play ever, but at the same time those critics called it concise and rough and at times quite resolute. By the way, there is also a Moscow version of the play, produced in the Centre of Drama and Art Direction by the actor and director Alexander Nazarov, starring Egor Siatvind.

In the program of the 4th NET (New European Theatre) Festival on the stage of the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow a very resonant adaptation of “Woyzeck” was shown by Josef Nadj – a French director and choreographer of Hungarian origin. Without any word spoken, he rolls out before the audience a vast fabric in which people-marionettes remind monsters, characters of the great cataclysm. Materialised horror creatures now shape from clay their own faces-masks, now take a “sand shower”, or then suddenly tear out of each other’s body real fresh flesh… At the same time the director doesn’t send us to look for some usual associations and images. He rather sees his task in creating one static composition, where even Woyzeck is a character that doesn’t conflict with the composition’s dominant idea, but is wholly a part of the overall harmonic set. And so the performance appears an impeccable mechanism, difficult for an “average” mind, but very intriguing with its idea and little details of realization.

And one cannot fail to mention a probably today’s most known German production of Woyzeck by Thomas Ostermeier, director of the Schaubühne Theatre and one of the most popular theatre directors in Germany nowadays. Ostermeier takes the play’s action to the outskirts of a modern metropolis, and his “Woyzeck” bears all the traits of a social drama. One sees a concrete chimney and a dirty ditch in the middle of the stage, as well as a fast food stand with and a bio toilet. A vivid crowd out of rockers, punks, prostitutes, homeless and skinheads ready to beat anyone who gets in their way… Woyzeck is not a soldier here, as different from the original Büchner’s play (other characters have no rank epaulettes either) but rather a local freak, a bit silly: he catches frogs and picks the plants from the ditch. From time to time he meets the skinheads and becomes their punching bag for a while. And the doctor gives the loser some weird medicine, lest he should die. For his “clients” – the Captain, and the Tambourmajor – Woyzeck must shave not only their faces. He tries as he can to be unnoticeable but as bad luck may have it he always manages to be in the wrong place in the wrong moment. And it seems the whole world waits only for a chance to taunt the poor Woyzeck. Even the child he has with Maria – ugly and beast-like – is perceived as the apotheosis of all that misfortune (this role is played by a dwarf.

Ostermeier is little interested in the relations of the small man and his society, much more is he captured by attentive observation of how an innocent soul changes into a killer and slips into abyss, how Woyzeck does not stand the pressure of his environment and responds by using force against this offence. And so he throws the dead Maria into a small dirty paddle, and the girl…disappears there.

Yet Monika Dobrowlanska, who has lived in Berlin since 2002, as different from Ostermeier thinks that the fundament of the performance should not be the director’s fantasy but rather the dramatic work itself, even so incomplete as Büchner’s (the mixed and unnumbered pages of the play give now every director the chance to create their own variant of Woyzeck.) Therefore it’s hardly worth speaking about the use by Dobrowlanska of any theatre traditions in the Belarusian “Woyzeck” – the director admitted herself that she is not quite familiar with the local theatre school, and German ones would hardly take roots in the strange ground. Probably this is also what attracted the brilliant acting ensemble, mostly made of young stars of the National Kupala Theatre: Oleg Garbuz (Captain, Barker, Jew), Alexander Molchanov (Tambourmajor), Svetlana Zelenkovskaya (Maria), Anna Hitrik (Doctor, Margarita, Barker). All these actors stated that their work in this production gave them a possibility to play the roles very different from those they would normally play in the Kupala Theatre. For Anna Hitrik it’s the repulsive, sickening sexless creature instead of the row of lyric and infantile girl fairies she had played. For Svetlana Zelenkovskaya it’s a naïve and weak girl, keen on simple emotions and superficial gloss, instead of perfect and symbolic heroines. For Alexander Molchanov it’s a handsome young man full of delusions and completely rattle-brained instead of multi-facet creator characters that seem to spread the positive social light around them. For Oleg Garbuz it’s a hero whose spoken wisdom and irony comes not from his intelligence and thoughtfulness, but from absolute indifference to all that surrounds him (including people), instead of wonderful princes or silly peasants who always have to get the house’s liking.

The main role in the show is played by Sergey Kovalsky, an actor from the State Puppet Theatre. And his “puppet background” definitely influenced his interpretation of Woyzeck. The performer doesn’t emphasize his character’s sick mind. It’s not his sickness but a certain mental deficiency that comes out in his Woyzeck – in the first place due to the plasticity of the puppet-like movements he shows from the first to the last scene of the show, quite unconsciously – postures as if his body was hung in the air; face expressions that are almost fully devoid of any change of emotions; lack of at least some surety in his deeds and his standing in life. This social insignificance of his is so vivid that other characters tend to address to Woyzeck in third person.

The topic of a small man appears for Monika Dobrowlanska not only in this production. Not less stridently is the problem of a man’s solitude and uselessness in the world of cars and computers sounded in the mono-production of “The Diary of a Madman,” where the role of Paprischin was brilliantly played by Anatol’ Kot. Yet what “Woyzeck” called out of memory was not at all Gogol, but Janka Kupala, the classic of Belarusian literature, with his “Eternal Song.” In essence, Woyzeck and Kupala’s countryman are both quite the same type. Not only they both don’t have their own voice, they don’t have time for chatting and all this philosophy. Someone must still work, right? This permeating feeling of the current place and time, which was so vividly described by the Belarusian classic a century ago, now suddenly shines from the German “Woyzeck” with new energy. A man has no right to be a silent and obedient calf that depends on each and everyone, he should be himself the creator of his own fortune and misfortune. Yet in this given story even the murder of Maria that Woyzeck ventures to, can hardly be called a conscious choice and an individual act – powerful social pressure makes it clear for him, in an awful and monstrous form, that one cannot live in the society and be free…

The director sets the performance free from any connections to certain time or place. On the stage one sees a big white circle and a big stripe across the whole background, white as well (scenography by Alena Igrusha) – both elements contributing to create a feeling that one observes the actors on the stage in a sterile microscope environment. Or perhaps caught by a searchlight of a circus arena, where the characters find themselves alone with each other. The audience can see every muscle on their faces, and so the only solution for the hero is to perform his feat well, as well as he can. In fact, we are reminded again that all around is just one big and rough circus performance – when we see the scene with barkers that perform the story of turning a monkey into a soldier (here Anna Hitrik reminds her puppet theatre background, when she takes in hands the marionette of a monkey-soldier).

And Büchner’s question whether or not Woyzeck is responsible for killing Maria, sounds again in this show, in all its up-to-date urgency. Who is to blame – the society that creates unbearable conditions, which impose their order on the weak human beings? Or still the bigger feat is to be considered the attempts of a marionette-man to take responsibility for his own acts? Even if we realize that such feat may still be dictated by some unknown and unreachable puppet master…

„Woyzeck“, a parable about the strangeness of fate

The Theatre of Belarusian Dramatic Art had an opening of Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck”

This tragedy is about life and death, out of time and place. Somehow there was a feeling that the performance would be dismal and melodramatic. But despite that anticipation “Woyzeck” was capturing and easy to see all the way till the end without effort. Notwithstanding the seriousness and classical origin of the play, the show flows very naturally. The director Monika Dobrowlanska and scenographer Alena Igrusha managed to make it a very realistic production, but this is not a grey and sweltering academic soviet style – Woyzeck’s is rather light and quite relative, like that of a parable. Although the first seeing does not let one understand fully every hero, and not all turns of the plot are that clear, still after the show one gets a feeling of poetic sadness. Yet Woyzeck himself has it quite harsh: “Everything goes to Hell!”

I should remind that the play’s main protagonist is a soldier, who kills his beloved out of jealousy, apparently out of hopelessness, life in poverty and sickness.

The relations between the play’s heroes, just as the whole fabric of this story, are rather simple and clear, but one can also find here the aloof and epic of many human problems. And definitely one feels something subtly Belarusian, apart from the two languages spoken in the play. Maybe this is something in the life of Woyzeck himself (Sergey Kovalsky), and in the circumstances, which he currently cannot resist to. The hero is so helpless before reality that he can only break through by committing a crime. And then this is when he loses not only Maria (Svetlana Zelenkovskaya) but also himself. “Woyzeck speeds through his life like an open razorblade” explains a bit vaguely but somewhat prophetically the Captain (Oleg Garbuz). The total system of oppressing a personality can make a small man its tiny detail, but there is a point of no return, when a man is no longer capable to lead the life of a tin soldier. It turns out he still has a soul inside, naive, and honest, far from the outside beauty. The Woyzeck by Sergey Kovalsky is admirable, and that people consider him an inferior neurasthenic is not his problem but that of the society he lives in. Or most probably Büchner himself decided to distance the protagonist’s image from the society.

The most vivid role played in this show is that by Anna Hitrik. Her Doctor comes from the country of Bosch’s images – grotesque, merry, wicked – he is all that in one person. But this doctor is also a true grave-digger, he does not bring medicine, but a system of oppression, experiment on a man, where a diet of peas and “a beautiful murder” are both part of the same program. A medical check-up, where the patient is not seen nor treated, but only a certain scheme is being analysed – is in essence the inhumanity of human relations. They all together sell Woyzeck a knife, and then start singing and praying. As if they begin to regret. And again they altogether pass their sentence on Woyzeck, although the piece does not have an end.

Still the Captain remains the most mysterious role for me. He both laughs at Woyzeck and taunts him, but himself keeps suffering: “What can I do? Only “quick march!”” Just because of this character the show is to be seen for the second time. Maria in her turn is quite clear and natural – in her female affections, in her beauty, her sin, her fate. She organically fits into her environment, her life and even her death. Only Woyzeck is amazed that sin can be so beautiful: “Why doesn’t God blow out the sun so that everything can roll around in lust, man and woman, man and beast. “

Let us wish the play success for the future shows. It is still to get its real strength and roll before its audience with all the facets of tragedy, which the young actors of National Kupala Theatre can certainly manage. “Woyzeck” bears so many meanings, associations, so much subtlety and truth – it will certainly become the main hit of the coming season.