Bringing together actors, dancers and more than 100 local community performers, Woyzeck is an ambitious joint venture between Birmingham Repertory theatre, its community engagement programme Furnace, and Birmingham international dance festival. Georg Büchner’s 1836 play – more an accumulation of contrasting scenes than a composed narrative – lends itself to this kind of composite production, and Leo Butler’s adaptation recasts it in a multifarious world that freely incorporates references to Twitter, 1950s electric shock treatment, 1920s robot fantasies, war in the Middle East and supermarket meal deals.
It’s a composite experience, too, running the gamut from incisive to blunt, focused to dissipated. There are some scenes where dance, text and staging spark together and others where they tug in different directions. The story follows lowly soldier Woyzeck (Thomas Pickles) returning to civilian life, only to find that peace, or democracy – “or whatever it is we were fighting for” – has its own stinging cruelties and exploitative hierarchies of power, wealth and status, and that it has no real place for him.
Having been left holding the baby during the war, Woyzeck’s girlfriend Marie (Jalleh Alizadeh) goes off with the swaggering Drum Major (Josef Hyland) on the promise of fun times and a mobile phone, while Woyzeck brings in extra money as a groom for the Captain (Nicolas Sullivan), and by submitting to medical trials for the Doctor (Linda Hisgett).
Despite moments of genuine humanity, humour and insight, the first half of the production is hit and miss: troupes of salsa and bhangra dancers serve as background colour, and while Woyzeck and Marie feel like rounded characters, others are bluntly drawn. The Captain and Doctor, in particular, are cast as stereotypical baddies: a predatory aristocratic homosexual and a crazed scientist.
But once Woyzeck starts falling apart, director Roxana Silbert and choreographer Rosie Kay really pull the piece together. There are gripping scenes with a crowd of white-coated ghosts carrying a baby doll, or clubbers bopping to Bang Bang in woozy slow motion.
In the finale, Pickles is terrific as Woyzeck adrift in a boat – tormented, anguished, entirely un-self-aware – while his unmoored mind hallucinates a Pina Bausch-style procession of funeral marchers. It’s a desolate, spellbinding finish that – at the premiere at least – was immediately followed by a clap-happy curtain call, which rather undermined the production’s own achievement.