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Review of Woyzeck at the Old Vic Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

In a recent interview, Star Wars actor John Boyega, who was raised in Peckham in South London a few miles from the Old Vic, commented, "Growing up, I used to get the bus, the 171, and I would pass the Old Vic and I thought, 'Who goes to see plays there, man?' It felt to me so distant." 

And when I interviewed him myself, he admitted that until he came to appear here now in Woyzeck, he'd never actually stepped foot inside the building -- even though he happily checked off a list of other London theatres he'd regularly visited growing up, like the National, Young Vic, Arcola and Almeida; he last appeared on a London stage himself at the Tricycle eight years ago, before he was discovered for Star Wars. 

So it is both a major coup for the Old Vic under artistic director Matthew Warchus and is likely to bring in a whole new audience for the theatre that Boyega is now starring there. It is also bold and invigorating that he's appearing in a deliberately confrontational tangle of a play. 

Georg Buchner's play -- written in 1830s Germany and left unfinished by the playwright at his death at the age of just 23 - has long been a favourite of directors and writers seeking to put their own stamp on it, as it invites them to make their own interventions to make it viable. Here, writer Jack Thorne and director Joe Murphy have re-set it in 1980s Berlin, where Woyzeck is a British soldier guarding the wall that divided the city into East and West Germany. The wall itself is a major element of Tom Scutt's design, with large rectangular panels of it dropping in and out on counterweights to define different spaces. 

But it is the interior landscape of Woyzeck's disintegrating mind that the play charts, and Boyega has to undergo a dark, brutal, hurtling journey to the abyss of self-destruction; he exudes presence, power and a muted fury that is about to erupt. His grim submission to medical experiments to augment his soldier's salary, as he seeks to make a home for his girlfriend and new baby, is shocking. 

It is a discomforting play that's not easy to watch, but this deeply atmospheric production provides a darkly compelling experience. 

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