Woyzeck was sheer magic. Soothing music, spotlight on a surreal chair, darkness all around… Suddenly from the darkness emerged people who tore the chair to pieces and put it together again.
What was going on, one wondered. Chairs became cages. Cages turned into chairs again. The people came in and out as if by magic. What did it mean? Love, hate, persecution, regimentation, betrayal, revenge — or was I reading too much into all this. Who cares!
Why does one seek meaning all the time in everything? What’s the need? Woyzeck was beyond need for meaning. It was an amalgam of beauty, craft and amazing skill that left one gasping. A play, acrobatics, a painting — it was all of that. And it left me craving for more.
Delectable dance drama
My first tryst with Woyzeck was when I watched Herzog's tour de force silver screen adaptation and I’ve marvelled at the enduring relevance of the play ever since. Every time I read about soldiers going on a murderous rampage of superior officers or soldiers committing horrendous human rights violations, my thoughts scurry back to Georg Buchner's unflinching take on military life.
Sadari Movement Laboratory's experimental retelling of the story follows Woyzeck’s systematic descent into paranoia, precipitated by the oppressive regimentation and self-demeaning nature of military life. This Korean adaptation was a delectable dance drama whose narrative progressed through an innovative use of chairs. It was a delight to see an object as mundane as a chair being transformed into guns, cages, kiosks, beer mugs and an x-ray machine on stage. With perfectly choreographed movements, seamless transitions between scenes and an affable cast, Woyzeck and crew stole the heart of the Chennai crowd.
Woyzeck. The emcee mentioned during her introduction that it was a minimalistic play. When the play started, there was just a chair placed in the centre of the stage. There weren’t any lavish sets. Never before have I seen man and object becoming “one”. There are times when I actually felt the line blur beyond recognition.
There were many aspects of the play that left me astounded — the choreography, the music, the play with chairs, the emotions and the language. But I felt the best moment was the final death act. As Marie fell, an actor brought a chair and put it next to her with a “thud”. There were no mikes. But that “thud” was deafening. More powerful than any stereo could ever produce.
Woyzeck. Myriad expressions. Sheer grandeur.
The organisers of the MetroPlus Theatre Festival committed an error to explain which I have arrived at two theories. The first, and the more excusable reason for the error, is they showed the theatre-loving public of Chennai a play in Korean, and managed to show only snatches of the surtitles, because of a technical difficulty, thereby rendering the play largely incomprehensible to the audience. The second, and far more distressing possibility, is that they thought they could show the theatre-loving public of Chennai a play in Korean and not give them the benefit of surtitles, thereby celebrating the ‘purity of movement' and the ‘universal language of the stage' and showing themselves off as obnoxiously and pretentiously elitist. I may never find out which of the two is closer to the truth, but one thing I can certainly say is it was a shambles. The play itself I cannot fault, because I did not get a chance to view it as it was meant to be viewed. I am fairly certain the dialogues in Korean were meant to be understood by the audience, and not merely absorbed as background score for the movements. As it stood, for all its beautiful movement and stellar stagecraft, the play was utterly incomprehensible, and therefore a spectacular bore, and the organisers of the festival were certainly the ones at fault. I do pity the members of the Sadari Movement Laboratory for having to come all the way to Chennai to fall victim to the incompetence or the pretentiousness of the organisers of the MetroPlus Theatre Festival.
Woyzeck was everything theatre can and should be. Arresting images assembled and dissolved in seconds by the actors, using only their highly trained bodies and chairs as props. Interesting shifts in tempo accompanied by haunting music. Brilliant use of stage space. Superb lighting. And an ensemble working in perfect sync. If there was something that was lacking, it was the inability to follow the dialogues in Korean, though each scene was summarised in supertitles. And finally, a tribute to the discerning audience, which was receptive to a performance that was undoubtedly as challenging to watch as it was to perform.
The best so far
Woyzeck by far has been the best play the Metroplus Theatre Fest 2012 has showcased. With excellent use of lights, music, dance and props, the action on stage changed within seconds. In spite of the play being in a foreign language, the fact that the audience could follow what was happening is proof of how able the actors were. The shadow scene and the interesting use of chairs as changeable metaphors really stole the show. Woyzeck (Seung-Gyun HONG) and Marie (Jae-Sun SHIM) deserve a special mention. Such precise coordination and the almost stealthy movement of the artists made the show something to be remembered well after the performance was over. They truly deserved the standing ovation they were given at the end. What was disappointing was that there wasn’t a panel discussion with these performers.
Aditi Anna Kuriakose
New theatre language
Never in my experience has Georg Buchner’s play Woyzeck been presented on stage in such a novel and experimental manner. Sadari Movement Laboratory has achieved the seemingly impossible feat of conveying the narrative as well as the emotion of the plot without employing words. The story is based on the true story of a poor German soldier who, driven to madness by inhuman military discipline, murders his mistress. The storyline in the original itself is very thin. The Korean version strips it bare and tries to rediscover it through a new theatre language of objects, bodies, movement and space. Dialogue is minimal; so is the stage setting which consists of a number of chairs. The few lines translated into English and shown overhead do not enhance the understanding of the play in any manner. In other words, we do not need those super-imposed lines to understand or appreciate it. A new theatre language unfolds itself through quick body movements and deft use of chairs. Body movements together with the use of chairs interpret space and create invisible spaces through images. The pace is swift, like a fast-moving medley of images which one can only enjoy. Music plays a very important role in this play giving momentum to the narrative.
"Woyzeck!" cries the Sergeant-Major, and that's about all the dialogue that I can comprehend in the play by Sadari Movement Laboratory. But it doesn't matter, because I am held spellbound. The story started off a bit slow- for those who didn't know the original story, It was quite hard to understand at first. But it soon became clear, helped, of course, by the short pieces of narrative in between. The story of a soldier whose loved one had an affair, the intensity with which he feels the pain and anger going through him- conveyed so beautifully through well coordinated movement. A brilliant chorus, emphasising the emotions, playing the conscience of Woyzeck and Marie — it was as if they were an integral part of the story themselves, a point of connection, perhaps, between the audience and the characters. Director Do-Wan IM's creative vision, its perfect execution by the actors, is seen at every point of the story, be it in the superb choreography, the acting that gave just the right tinge of emotion, or the variety of ways in which the chairs were used. A special mention must go to the lightening-fast scene changes- unbelievable! Nothing was overstated, but we knew, and could understand Woyzeck's pain, as we watched, expectantly and with growing trepidation, the thrilling finale when he kills Marie. It goes to show really, how much one can do to achieve great theatre, with minimal sets, great talent and perfect coordination.
Language, no barrier
The Sadari Movement Laboratory's interpretation of Woyzeck is a perfect example of minimalism at its best. Despite the fact that I don't know a word of Korean, I had no difficulty in understanding the message put forth. The use of chairs as the only props and sets was excellent and the speed with which the actors put together and disassembled complex structures from the chairs in complete darkness is worthy of praise. The actors got their message across promptly. There was also a good deal of well-placed comedy which did not distract the audience from the main theme. Such attempts at alternative methods of storytelling are often unsuccessful, but Woyzeck was spot on.
The superlative Korean production of Woyzeck used minimalistic set and props (chairs) as a platform to magnify intense, physical performances that provided a deeper insight into various aspects of this classic. The music, which ranged from soothing to upbeat, constantly shifted to keep up with the fluctuating atmosphere of the play, which had splashes of absurd humour, sensual romanticism and sequences of poetic horror to capture the anxiety of Woyzeck’s hallucinations. A fairly constructive first half experienced a sudden melancholic transition that progressed into a powerful, yet nightmarish and tragic dénouement, which showcased Woyzeck as more helpless than we would have imagined. Georg Büchner’s play has been successfully adapted numerous times into bizarre films, dramatic performances and dance. That being said, this version by Sadari Movement Laboratory is one of the most provoking, interpretative and original productions of Woyzeck.
Failed to strike a chord
Woyzeck deals with the terror unleashed upon the individual by the state, and how a patriarchal society’s moral one-upmanship both exploits and punishes its women for making free choices. Sadari’s interpretation was physically intense, with exhilarating visuals and music. But the question was — did exhibitionism trump emotion? At no point did the play work for me, because I could not empathise with any of the characters. Even powerful scenes seemed manipulative, barely scratching the surface of the human conflict which is at the crux of Woyzeck. Minimal use of script is one thing; sacrificing it at the altar of imagery is another. Abstraction need not always be theatre’s answer to life’s apathetic reality; a realistic performance of a classic script has far more potency to touch the audience memorably. It is indeed sad when creators succumb to the very same eroding forces of standardisation and populist formulas which they vehemently raise voices against.
Full of energy
A creation in alien language but with familiar emotions and a stunning recap in the end. The yin and yang of music and silence, light and dark, speech and mime created a perfect support for the energetic actors and those metaphorical chairs. Those goose bumps I kept getting were not just because of the chilling A/C.