Not so long ago, in a London borough not that far away…
It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? But, if John Boyega’s eagerly awaited debut on the Old Vic stage were to have an opening crawl (which, thankfully, it doesn’t) it might start with just such an unassuming prelude.
Given the much-needed debate around race, class and opportunity in the arts, it’s far from inconsequential that the Camberwell-born actor, moulded in his craft from community theatre to local drama school, is taking the lead on one of London’s most prestigious stages in a play described as the first “working-class tragedy”. Director Joe Murphy has spoken candidly of his decision to cast a non-white, working-class lead, saying, “class is a big thing in theatre that doesn’t get discussed enough”.
That was reason enough to look forward to Woyzeck, even forgetting for a second Boyega’s galactic success in The Force Awakens. But, given all that, what people will want to know is, can he cut it?
And the unequivocal answer is: hell yes. He is, quite simply, brilliant.
As is almost everything about this reworking of Georg Büchner’s 19th-century wartime drama. Unfinished on his death, and refashioned on numerous occasions, it has been cleverly updated by This Is England and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne.
John Boyega as Woyzeck, Stefan Rhodri as the Captain; above: Boyega with Sarah Greene as Marie (photos by Manual Harlan)
The action has been transplanted to 1981: a soldier called Woyzeck is stationed with British forces in West Berlin, which is surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. With orders not to engage with the enemy and nothing to do but wait for an invasion, it’s a far cry from the pressure cooker of Northern Ireland, from which he has recently been transferred.
He struggles to come to terms with the alienation of his lowly role and the hardship it places on his relationship with his young girlfriend and baby who’ve travelled with him. As he desperately tries to find purpose and meaning in his life, and the abuses from those in positions of authority become more egregious, Woyzeck battles psychologically with an oppression he cannot see or understand.
Boyega, as the eponymous soldier, is absolutely compelling and captivating. He brings muscular presence to the role, but can be delicate and earnest with equal aplomb. As Woyzeck’s fragile mental state slowly deteriorates, there’s palpable tension. When his bludgeoning brute force is unleashed – head-butting a wall or striking out at others – it takes you aback with its fury. There won’t be many better performances this year.
Sarah Greene is equally superb as Marie, Woyzeck’s girlfriend. Showing a delicate strength as she strives to make the best of an increasingly troubled situation, Greene makes her more than just a naive victim. The two leads crackle with energy and their scenes together are the best throughout.
Ben Batt is all machismo as a philandering private who brings a touch of humour (and privates). And Nancy Carroll’s haughty and bored captain’s wife who likes a bit of rough is the perfect foil to expose the patent class privilege. The only gripe was Darrell D’Silva’s Doctor Martens, who was a little too comic-book mad scientist.
The Old Vic’s deep stage is ingeniously left as a dark void, from which characters emerge and fade. Large stuffed panels form ominous barriers above and at the sides of the stage, representing both the historical walls and those of the mind. When these padded walls are punctured, they reveal a raw, fleshy underbelly symbolising the invisible wounds inflicted upon the beleaguered military man.
This really is one not to miss. The war might be of the cold variety, but this star is red-hot.
Woyzeck is at London’s Old Vic until 24 June