Directors love Woyzeck, Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1830s expressionist masterpiece, because it’s both malleable and moody. As the soldier Woyzeck lashes out at his proletarian circumstances, a grotesque parade of society marches around him in oblivion. Since the episodic scenes—which Büchner never left in definitive sequence—can be arranged at will, directors traditionally vie to stamp their own aesthetics on the homicidal gloom.
Icelandic director Gísli Örn Gardarsson, who has enjoyed recent London successes, starts with ripe ingredients: creepy, suggestive blues ballads commissioned for the show from Australian goth rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Unfortunately, though, Gardarsson buries the music’s potential—not to mention Büchner’s chilling poetry—under an avalanche of gimmickry. Instead of new insights into this familiar classic, he furnishes relentlessly showy visuals: an industrial set of pipes and pools; men in suits and shades doing goofy dances; actors swinging on trapezes. The company handles their athletic feats obligingly—plunging underwater and singing in mid-air—even if their heavy Nordic accents often flatten the language. Gardarsson may have intended to make Woyzeck’s breakdown feel contemporary, but the showmanship lacks nuance. Here, the drama comes off as a glitzy cartoon, with only faint hints at Büchner’s stark vision of life as a free-fall into the abyss.