Woyzeck and Marie in Josef Nadj's 'Woyzeck'. Photo © Lajos Somlosi

Woyzeck and Marie in Josef Nadj’s ‘Woyzeck’.
Photo © Lajos Somlosi

Experimental Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; February 21, 2014

David Mead

On his death from typhoid in 1837, Georg Büchner left four unfinished, rough outlines of his grim and harrowing play. Although they are not named as such, anyone familiar with the work will make out the main characters of Marie, the Doctor, Captain, Drum Major and Woyzeck himself, even if there isn’t a great deal of Büchner’s original plot to be seen in Josef Nadj’s remarkable free adaptation. In another way, though, there’s an awful lot there, because where Nadj succeeds brilliantly is in capturing the torment of the man, and the totally dehumanising effects that doctors, and particularly war, can have on people.

Although now director of the Centre Choréographique National d’Orléans in France, Nadj is originally from the Voyvodina region of Serbia. This version of “Woyzeck” was made in 1994, when the conflict in the Balkans was at its height, and by which time Slobodan Milosovec’s rule had already had a particularly destructive effect on his homeland. It’s difficult to imagine that not having an effect on his production. That war, not for the first time, saw people used as political tools, and very disposable tools at that. Like so many, Nadj’s Woyzeck does not notice the state of the world he lives in, and the horrors unfolding around him.

Nadj does not replace Buchner’s narrative with his own. Instead, he presents fragments. Scenes build layer upon layer, piling up in front of us here and there, leaving us aghast at how easily horror becomes the norm, and the insane becomes the sane. Many end in static tableaux, giving the audience a few moments to digest what they have witnessed. They are also defined by specific events. But the fact the characters never leave the stage lends a continuity to the whole.

This is a “Woyzeck” that straddles the boundaries of theatre, mime and dance. Significantly, the performers are described as ‘interpreters’ not dancers. Their movement is largely awkward, even gawky, which only makes the few moments of lyricism all the more potent. Their physicality was precise and quite remarkable throughout.

The Doctor and Woyzeck eating peas in Josef Nadj's 'Woyzeck'. Photo © Lajos Somlosi

The Doctor and Woyzeck eating peas in Josef Nadj’s ‘Woyzeck’.
Photo © Lajos Somlosi

Nadj’s world is one filled with people who resemble the undead, the sense magnified by most of the characters having their heads smeared with clay. It’s a place without feeling, and in which human experimentation, cannibalism, self-mutilation and death become the norm, and even the sane. Marie is no more than a toy in the hands of men in uniform. But most of time the men too seem little more than objects. No-one ever seems in charge. They are at the mercy of some unseen power, of circumstance, of surroundings and events. There is a sense that they too are victims as much as victimisers. Sometimes this comes through in the movement itself, as when, early on, Marie uses her fingers to direct Woyzeck’s facial expression. Soon after, the Doctor manipulates the bodies of Woyzeck and Marie. In both cases the message seems to be that these people are like puppets with no control over what they do.

For much of the work, the characters hover on the edge of humanity. In the end, though, they turn irreversibly into grotesque monsters. They reside in a crowded, claustrophobic set just 5m square, that resembles a broken down rustic shack in a place that war has become the norm. Apart from Marie, they take turns at being the torturer and victim, savaging each other as if it was the most normal thing in the world. At one point, one slits open his belly, drags out his liver, and bites into it. Another takes a piece of meat from another’s back and munches on it. That’s on top of the vomiting, force feeding, and more. Anything that brings colour to the scene, most notably two bright red apples, is quickly destroyed. A few in the audience giggled nervously from time to time, some groaned in disgust; some just looked on in silent horror unsure how to react.

The murder scene, although it actually seems rather more an accident here, happens so quickly it’s easy to miss. The men perform a series of choreographed military salutes that turn into nervous hand wringing. In the middle of all this, a rather clean and fresh-faced character, significantly not smeared with clay, embraces Marie as if to dance with her. This individual appears to be a second Woyzeck and to represent the other side of Woyzeck’s mind, showing that under everything there is still a vestige of humanity and kindness. He falls against the table and drops his partner, who is now dead. The other Woyzeck tries to wake her, but it is too late.

Josef Nadj's 'Woyzeck'.  Photo © Lajos Somlosi

Josef Nadj’s ‘Woyzeck’.
Photo © Lajos Somlosi

The scenes of filth and violence are played out to Aldar Racz’s piano music that is reminiscent of that played in silent movies in the way it adds to the atmosphere and intensifies and underscores the dramatic climaxes. Add to that the stiff movement of the characters, the excessive aggression that would border on the comical in another setting, the sepia toned lighting and the framing of the action by the confined set, and you have such a film come to life.

In the play, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death by a pond. Most interpretations of the play add an ending that has him drown himself in the pond while trying to cleanse himself of her blood. Nadj, though, simply has the characters leave the stage, one by one, Marie carried off seated on a chair, presumably to continue their gruesome goings on elsewhere.