Woyzeck’s Wild Years


Robert Wilson’s Woyzeck, rich in epiphanies, is nowhere more provocative than when it lets us think the title refers to the younger of the two Woyzecks onstage. The boy is silent, an extreme version of his father’s inarticulate vulnerability. Yet when he moves, detaching himself from his parents’ standoff, he discovers the freedom eluding them and everyone else in the play. He spends much of his time dancing. His is a simple, seemingly unstructured choreography, turning circles and floating around the stage like a toy plane—a dance done for himself, claiming the space and his body.

That the elder Woyzeck lacks anything like this mastery over his own bodily and domestic space makes the boy’s activity more pointed. Büchner’s skeptical interrogation of ideals of naturalness—for Woyzeck, nature is mere animal biology or destructive instinct—here unfolds in counterpoint to Wilson’s vision of spontaneity, a more beneficent naturalness, fostering rather than denying individuality. When it’s the boy’s turn to behave like an animal, he is playful, ironic. When he puts on a funny mask and harnesses its snout, he himself pulls the leash.

It’s hard to resist reading this performance as a comment on Wilson’s own ideas of naturalness. The director’s well-known insistence on actorly precision and scorn for sentiment can seem uncomfortably close to the many forces denying Woyzeck his own freedom of movement and emotional expressiveness. Yet there has always been in Wilson a movement away from exactitude. The boy isn’t the first child charged with preserving the spirit of play and even mischief in Wilson’s theater, not the first, moreover, with a strong identity impossible to subdue with art. The boy shooting paper airplanes in Einstein on the Beach is only the most memorable in a series of Wilson children allowed to subvert his mise-en-scène in the interest of getting us to think about how else, and how futilely, we impose our will on the world.

Revisiting that theme in Woyzeck, Wilson sharpens it. While Woyzeck tries to grab hold of everything insulting his dignity, ultimately killing the wife who cuckolded him, Wilson himself traces a less predictable pattern. The narrative may be inexorable (“one thing after another,” says Woyzeck), but Wilson emphasizes its frequent eruptions of the grotesque to create a production that is mercurial and light. Tom Waits does the same. His score is a catalog of acidic laments, wistful lullabies, and raunchy siren songs dissolving throughout into disparate notes unclaimed by any context, picked out tentatively on a piano.

Thinking rhythmically himself, Wilson sets each performer to a different clock. The Captain (Ole Thestrup) moves with elephant steps and speaks as lugubriously. The Doctor—here Siamese twins played by Morten Eisner and Marianne Mortensen—walks and talks spasmodically. In her restlessness Marie (Kaya Brüel) slinks around Woyzeck (Jens Jørn Spottag) without ever touching him. As for Woyzeck himself, he enjoys his greatest stability when he’s running “like an open razor”—a cranking of piston-like limbs, eyes straight ahead as if to light up his track. More often, however, he’s cut to pieces as severely as the text and score. He begins and ends as nothing more than a hand—moving only his wrist as he shaves the Captain, passing a blood-red hand across his face before the murder, and finally thrusting his entire body along with his knife as he stabs Marie, a whole man at last.

Of course there’s nothing liberating about that ending. All along, huge forked branches and silos with arrowed roofs descend from the flies to pin Woyzeck down. Elsewhere, he stops short, as if on a cliff—an effective literalization of Büchner’s lines about getting dizzy when you look down into the “abyss” of another person, but also further proof that geography itself seems to conspire against Woyzeck. That’s nowhere more apparent than in the spaces where he should feel most at home. This production is most startling when, in its final scenes, Wilson replaces the Caligari-like tangle of diagonal lines and tilting walls of Woyzeck’s house with a room of right angles. On the eve of Marie’s murder, this straightened, conventional space is more menacing than expressionist disorder.

At the end, the boy returns to push Wilson’s desire for unpredictability one step further. In his last appearance, the idiot Karl carries him onstage after Marie’s death, his body limp—Cordelia in Lear’s arms. The suggestion that he, too, has died is short-lived—he wakes up—but our momentary confusion is crucial. We expect the worst, but as Wilson evades not just tragedy but any sense of ending, he ultimately makes us see the greater challenge in the immature energy that mocks despair.