The Naked Woyzeck: Hungarian Productions Take Classics by Buchner and Brecht to New Extremes. (Postmark Hungary). (theater review)

By O'Quinn, Jim | American Theatre, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Naked Woyzeck: Hungarian Productions Take Classics by Buchner and Brecht to New Extremes. (Postmark Hungary). (theater review)


O'Quinn, Jim, American Theatre


Woyzeck holds a special place in the Hungarian theatre repertoire. In a society subjected for more than 30 years to Soviet regimentation and repression, it makes sense that Georg Buchner's brilliant, fragmentary proletarian outcry--left unfinished when its precocious 23-year-old author died of typhus in a rented room in Zurich in 1837--would strike a resonant chord. Something in the stark tale of Buchner's naive, doomed antihero--his subjugation to military bullying, his victimization at the whims of the powerful--cuts close to the quick in the Hungarian sensibility.

Director Tamas Fodor's landmark 1977 Budapest production of Woyzeck is remembered by those who saw it as an inexorable human tragedy that abstained from political gestures--there were no hidden references to the vices of communists or the Soviets, no metaphoric "reading between the lines"--to focus instead on the humility, suffering and shattered self-respect of its title character. Janos Szasz's highly praised 1994 film of the play, made at a point when Hungarian democracy was a fragile four years old, underscored the oppressive nature of hierarchical authority even as it dwelt, as did Fodor's version, on the story's psychological force and sexual danger.

But admirers of the play, Hungarian and otherwise, have never seen a Woyzeck like the one that debuted last season in Budapest under the direction of Arpad Schilling. This iconoclastic 28-year-old director--whose company, Kretakor ("Chalk Circle"), has attracted some of Hungary's best-respected actors (but, significantly, no official funding and no permanent space to work in)--shocked audiences and polarized the critics with his violent, voyeuristic treatment of Woyzeck, renamed W--Worker's Circus.

Aiming to strip down Buchner's already minimal drama to a kind of physical, ritualized essence, Schilling and his fiercely committed actors created an event of discomforting intimacy and intensity. Stunned first-night spectators reportedly declined to applaud, but once critics and commentators squared off in the press (was it "a peep-show of savages" or "an unforgettable poetic nightmare"?), the production became a sold-out succes de scandale. It represented Hungary this year at festivals in Germany and France, was selected as one of the 12 showcase works to be honored at the Hungarian National Theatre Festival in Pecs in June, then headed out on tour to the prestigious Piccolo Teatro in Milan.

I saw W--Worker's Circus in Pecs, the verdant southern Hungarian resort city of 200,000 that as of last year became the permanent site of the National Theatre Festival. Once again it was a hot ticket, even as it competed for end-of-year honors with such major productions as the Katona Jozsef Theatre's Lord of the Rings-ish folk epic Saint George and the Dragon, director Tamas Ascher's impeccably Chekhovian staging of Ostrovski's The Forest and an astonishing reimagining of Brecht's Life of Galileo by another young Hungarian director to be reckoned with, Sandor Zsoter. (Schilling's W and Zsoter's Galileo, the most radical works in the festival, were passed over for prizes, which went mostly to a skillfully minimal adaptation of Crime and Punishment from the Budapest Chamber Theatre.)

AWARDS ASIDE, SCHILLING AND THE extremity of his approach to Buchner were the liveliest topics of debate among theatre people in Pecs's historic squares and late-night cafes. W--Worker's Circus is performed in a black-box space dominated by a great trapezoidal cage of heavy wire mesh with a bare earthen floor. As they enter, spectators press close against the cage on three sides as a naked woman crouches inside atop a cement-mixing machine; other performers clamber apelike high in the shadowy grid of the cage amid ropes and pullies; glowing plastic bags of yellowish liquid (Woyzeck's urine, one realizes, for the Doctor's tests) are suspended from the ceiling. …

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