A stellar Irish cast bring the works of two 19th century troubled geniuses together at London’s Barbican
When acclaimed Armagh theatre director Conall Morrison began to study two of his favourite ever works of art he began to notice the similarities between the two projects, and only this year realised his dream to bring them to the stage.
Woyzeck, by George Büchner, and Die Winterreise by Frank Schubert, were written within ten years of each other; the 24 songs of Die Winterreise in 1827 and the 26 scenes of the play in 1836.
They were both troubled geniuses who died young, and now Morrison and his creative team are fusing the two together in a daring new production sung in English. The dark love story brings the jealousy of Büchner’s play to the stage, as it is almost narrated by Winterreise to portray the main character’s inner turmoil and demise.
It was the flagship show at the Galway International Arts Festival this year, and it is coproduced by the festival and Landmark Productions before making its UK premiere at the Barbican this week.
Büchner’s dramatic masterpiece Woyzeck is interwoven with songs from Schubert’s Winterreise to form a distinctive musical production, with the central roles played by Irish performers Patrick O’Kane and Camille O’Sullivan. The story focuses on Woyzeck, a poor soldier who earns extra money for his family through menial jobs and participation in bizarre medical experiments.
Brutalised by society and consumed with jealousy, he is driven to the far side of alienation and despair before finally a desperate, violent act.
Exploiting the uncanny similarities between the two dark masterworks, Dublin-based director Morrison draws on Schubert’s extraordinary music to illuminate the inner landscape of Woyzeck’s tortured mind. With the startling story set amid a terrain of broken pianos, vivid scenes flow seamlessly into songs, now translated into English by Stephen Clark, revealing their potent passion.
The cast also includes Stephen Brennan, Rosaleen Linehan and Barry McGovern, outstanding actor-singers who have appeared previously at the Barbican. Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre, noted Landmark’s Productions previous presentation of Enda Walsh’s Howie the Rookie at the Barbican in 2014 and said that they have long ‘admired’ their work, along with the Galway International Arts Festival.
“It is a great boon for us, as co-commissioner, to join forces with these amazing coproducers to bring Woyzeck in Winter to our stages and to have these supremely talented Irish actors, some already known to Barbican audiences,” he said. “We look forward to this seeing how this brilliant pairing of Büchner’s play Woyzeck with Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise makes us consider these well-known and much-performed works afresh.”
Anne Clarke, Producer, Landmark Productions and Paul Fahy, Artistic Director, Galway International Arts Festival called Racklin a ‘passionate and committed advocate for the show’.
“We are delighted to have brought together a company of phenomenal Irish actor singers. This is a real thrill, and it could not happen without the support of both the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, for which we are very grateful.”
The two main characters are Woyzeck, played by the dependably unsettled O’Kane, across from the acclaimed O’Sullivan as his lover Marie. O’Sullivan’s character is no less tragic than her male opposite, and despite her affection for her lover and child she is gripped by resentment at their poverty-stricken existence, and pursues an affair which eventually pushes Woyzeck over the edge, bringing destruction to all of their lives Morrison says that it is ‘as if both pieces are breathing the same air, concerning as they do an alienated central character adrift in a world of madness, jealousy, doomed love, the hostility of nature’.
Büchner’s play is composed of brief, shard-like scenes that tell the story of Woyzeck’s madness, and the sequence of events that lead to him killing his unfaithful wife, while Winterreise dramatises a heartbroken obsessive, staggering through the winter wastes towards his own destruction.
The play gives a context and structure that animate the songs, and the songs liberate and illuminate the strangled eloquence inside poor Woyzeck’s mind. The impact that Büchner and Schubert had on the Romantic era is further highlighted by the show’s set design, which features over 100 pianos heaped together into a mountainscape, to emulate the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and other artists of the era.
The play takes place on a mountain scape, designed by Jamie Vartan, of old pianos, amongst which is a Steinway grand played by the concert pianist Conor Linehan, who is musical director. The piano not only creates the emotional atmospheres but also functions as a metaphor for the human mind: this infinitely expressive but highly fragile instrument that can so easily go ‘out of tune’.
A cast of ten play all the roles, with characters other than Woyzeck singing some of the songs, for example, Marie sings The Signpost, Backward Glance and The Inn. Other characters too have songs and the piano score to represent an inner emotional life that they do not have the formal articulacy to express.
Schubert’s sound gives musical expression to many of the latent dramatic ideas in Büchner’s play, and Büchner’s play gives a new structure to the song-cycle. Its combined effect animates a rich and complex tragic love story where jealousy and sexual rage result in violence, but also give free reign and an arena for dark comedy.
• Woyzeck in Winter Wednesday 13–Saturday 16 September 2017, Barbican Theatre Box office: 0845 120 7511 www.barbican.org.uk/theatre