Woyzeck Review: Financial Insecurities and Undiagnosed Mental Health

Woyzeck Review: Financial Insecurities and Undiagnosed Mental Health

John Boyega is on an upward trajectory – as one of the many black British actors enjoying an exhilarating career in the US as of late, he’s been tipped as one to watch. From his breakout role playing the lead in Attack the Block to his more recent turn as stormtrooper Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Boyega has commanded the attention of critics and cinema-goers on both sides of the pond. This year, he makes his Old Vic debut playing the lead and title character in Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Woyzeck. Written by Georg Büchner in the late 19th century, the play gets a Cold War reboot with a young cast, set against the backdrop of 1980s Berlin in the midst of the stand-off between the US and the USSR. The play draws upon many themes, including poverty and mental health, that run parallel with the problems faced by many young people today.

Woyzeck is a young British Army soldier deployed to the German city with his girlfriend Marie, and their young child. And it is in these circumstances that the young family are faced with difficult decisions that ultimately take a fatal toll. A determined yet distressed character, Woyzeck moves his family into a small, dilapidated flat in the slums of the city – the flat is located above a butcher’s shop, where the smell of decaying flesh permeates the air. This in many ways foreshadows the deterioration that is to follow for Woyzeck, in his desperate attempts at providing for his family and proving himself to his captain. Woyzeck is a character haunted by the past and unnerved by the future, as is evidenced in his flashbacks to his childhood. An orphan, Woyzeck has nothing to return to in Britain, and as the war wages on he holds on tightly to the only family he has.

Jack Thorne’s Woyzeck

As the financial pressure on Woyzeck grows and the stench of meat in the flat becomes unbearable, he is given no other option but to seek alternative means of income. This is when the play begins to take a dark turn and Boyega comes into his own. The unravelling of Woyzeck’s psyche is slow but intense, and Boyega delivers this brilliantly in extended monologues and asides. In a moment of hopelessness, Woyzeck visits a German doctor who agrees to pay him a stipend if he is willing to take pills that he is developing, and in giving his body to medicine, Woyzeck inadvertently gives away his mind. The pills have a sinister effect on the young soldier, and he grows increasingly paranoid. As the play reaches its dramatic climax, the storyline begins to remind the audience of another famous theatrical breakdown – that of Othello. It is therefore worth noting that Boyega’s first experience with stage was playing Shakespeare’s tragic hero – another soldier gripped by emotional instability. Woyzeck, similarly to Othello, suspects that his partner is being unfaithful. The difference being, while Othello had the deceptive voice of Iago in his ear, the catalyst for Woyzeck’s suspicions are the pills he is taking. The ending of the play is where it is most similar to the Shakespearean classic – Boyega delivers a harrowing monologue where he is at odds with himself, creating a split in his personality, and ends with him strangling Marie in a fit of rage and psychosis.

The similarities between this adaptation of Woyzeck and Othello are uncanny, but the play also calls our attention to the harsh realities faced by young people today. The exploration of mental health in men is timely, with suicide being the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. The uncertainty that clouds Woyzeck’s fate and future is also comparable to the contemporary socio-political climate. At a time when young people are becoming increasingly despairing about their future, the play manages to powerfully capture the anxieties that come with poverty and political upheaval.

Despite its setting, this adaptation of Woyzeck calls to mind many immediate concerns for people living in a city like London – from financial and political insecurity to undiagnosed mental health. As described by Tim Adams in an article for the Observer, the play is one that takes on a different life with each adaptation, and “Jack Thorne’s newly commissioned version of the play is a brutal interpretation for our times.” Boyega’s electrifying performance also gives us insight into what’s ahead in his career, as he leaves a mark on the Old Vic that is far from forgettable.


Written by Iman Mohamed


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Jack Thorne’s WoyzeckJack Thorne’s WoyzeckJack Thorne’s Woyzeck