With a plot more fitting for opera (as it has been: Alban Berg's Wozzeck premiered in 1925) than stage play - ie. less a plot, more an inevitable slide to a forseeable conclusion - this production is also opera-like in that it's a beautiful form to behold and wonder at, balancing on surprisingly little substance. Woyzeck's is a short, unsettling tale, based on real events, laid out in the show's programme (which first looks like a hideous spoiler, but then proves essential to anyone unfamiliar with the 'story' for extracting meaning from what follows).
Woyzeck is losing his mind; perhaps because he is poor, has a child out of wedlock, is jealous, and is living only on peas - and perhaps just...because. The depiction of this is beautifully disturbing. William Kentridge's swirling, dirty, scratchy, sometimes rude animations are the backdrop against which the dark days at the end of Woyzeck's life play out. Woyzeck himself, along with the other characters of Marie, her baby, the Doctor, the Captain, a miner, a witch, an accordionist - for light relief - and a couple of others including a wilful trained rhino are the most beautifully real, carved wooden puppets. Manipulated smoothly by their voice actors and puppeteers, who are in full view much of the time, they are so lifelike that one cannot resist total belief in them - even as Woyzeck's puppet master's hands are fully visible moving his as he makes increasingly desperate and hallucinatory repetitive movements, unpacks a box of his only possessions, or fails to take hold of the woman he loves.
Don't go to Woyzeck expecting a perky moral tale from Anansi the spider. Woyzeck's Africa is gloomy, barren and industrial; he and his acquaintances have nothing, and do anything they can to survive. To trip over the edge into madness - and murder - seems a short journey. Despite this hopelessness, Handspring, Kentridge and the cast manage to inject moments of cheeky humour into the bleak tale, and the moments when accordion music and lilting African song accompany Woyzeck's peculiar hallucinations in the starry sky have an oddly calm beauty. The (packed-out) audience seemed keen to laugh, as the more prevalent feeling was of confused wonder (not helped, I admit, by an underpowered radio mic set-up and some strong accents that made some dialogue hard to catch).
I'm not sure if Woyzeck has a message, but if it does, it might be that sh*t happens, and that if you're dirt poor, you can do less to avoid it. This message translates just as well to 1950s Joburg as to 19th century Germany, which might be what has made this bizarre, fragile story into such a rich seam for reworking in all sorts of media throughout the years - even beautiful, masterful puppetry.