Icelandic director Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s Woyzeck was Icelandic Vesturport Theatre’s offering to the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2008. A daring experimental adaptation of Georg Büchner’s 1836 classic unfinished work of the same title, Gardarsson pieced together Büchner’s fragmented scenes into the story of an everyman driven to psychological turmoil and murder by the hopelessness of his social situation. Gardarsson’s thematic approach did not veer too far away from previous adaptations or interpretations, but his execution proved to be a refreshing take on Büchner’s dark tale of human despair. Continuing the original text’s criticism of social injustices, Gardarsson updated Woyzeck’s military position as a lowly soldier to that of a minion in a water factory supervised by the sadistic Captain (Víingur Kristjánsson). The choice was a salient one, as Gardarsson evoked the universal theme of the subjugation of the downtrodden through a more historically recent reference. Given Iceland’s current state of economic bankruptcy caused by the poor decisions of banks and the state, Gardarsson’s selection of the factory site for his production seemed to be an apt metaphor for the environmental pollution and unequal capitalist system of our current milieu. The character Woyzeck sought moments of understanding and human connection in this increasingly alienating environment, and Gardarsson’s direction complicated this search through the mixing of the comic with the tragic, the fantastic with the mundane.
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The first scene, which began in darkness except for two spotlights on the faces of Woyzeck (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) and his wife Marie (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), eventually became illuminated to reveal [End Page 638] a stage design of industrial pipes sitting atop a floor of bright Astroturf. At the front of the stage sat the elongated water tank that would become the main feature of the set, where the performers would enact various pivotal scenes of humiliating subjugation, sexual consummation, and eventually murder and death. This opening mise-en-scène established the contrasting tones in the production itself, in which the bleak message of the play and the characters’ emotional alienation were played off the set, which resembled a playground with a swimming pool and a neon-green synthetic garden.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, of the group Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, wrote the original music and lyrics of the show, which enhanced the mockseriousness of Gardarsson’s interpretation. Writing lyrics inspired by the original play, as well as setting dialogue from the original play itself to music, the pair managed not only to inject a contemporaneity into the production itself, but also to emphasize the emotionality of the different scenes through various musical tracks. For example, energetic rock numbers accompanied the appearances of the Drum Major (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), played as a virile alpha-male character, and his posse of ten male chorus members dressed in black suits and sunglasses. Light waltzes underscored the appearance of Marie during the fairground scene when the Drum Major spotted and pursued her. Woyzeck and Marie, as well as Marie and the Drum Major, subsequently sang to each other in their featured “love” scenes. The characters invoking these playful musical interjections might have veered the audience away from more conventional readings of the text. However, the introduction of darker melodies as Woyzeck spiraled into psychological turmoil brought the theme of the production sharply home: the destruction of an individual who, in refusing to accept or succumb to the corrupted norms embodied by the people around him, is instead crushed by that society.
Mocked by his superiors, who are portrayed as two-dimensional caricatures of capitalist greed, and later sexually betrayed by his wife, Sigurdsson’s Woyzeck possessed a vulnerability that contrasted with the deliberately grotesque portrayals of the other characters. Gardarsson uses water thematically in various scenes, including the experimentations...