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★★★★ ‘richly impressive …. an absorbing hundred minutes of theatre, beautifully staged and performed’

Schubert and Büchner fuse to make an absorbing hundred minutes of theatre


This is a marriage between two masterpieces of Germanic culture, created a decade apart in total ignorance of each other: Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise, written in Vienna in 1827, and Büchner’s play Woyzeck, written in Zurich around 1835.

For this summer’s Galway International Arts Festival, the Irish director Conall Morrison devised a version of the play that integrates extracts from Winterreise,  with Wilhelm Müller’s verse freely and skillfully translated into English by the late Stephen Clark. Woyzeck – the Musical, as it might brashly be headlined, has now travelled to the Barbican (before returning to Ireland for next month’s Dublin Theatre Festival) and it proves to be a richly impressive piece of creative appropriation.

At his premature death, Büchner left his sketches for the play in a fragmentary state, without any clear sense of the order he intended them to be played. Those who know the story through Berg’s operatic version will be surprised at the way Morrison chooses to present the succession of events, and Schubert’s music is also freely cut and pasted between the different characters out of its original order. The piece opens, to give a striking instance, not with Woyzeck shaving the Doctor, but with Winterreise’s eerie conclusion – the lament of a hurdy-gurdy man, rather wonderfully sung by the androgynous contralto of Rosaleen Linehan.

Yet against the site-unspecific backdrop of a tumbledown stack of junk artfully designed by Jamie Vartan, the familiar story of the mercilessly bullied squaddie who ends up murdering his common-law wife Marie unfolds with fluent clarity. Patrick O’Kane may not have much of a singing voice – he tends to croon in a sub-Sinatra style – but he allows Woyzeck his dignity and humanity, never suggesting that he is merely a psychotic moron. The chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan fares better with her portion of the songs and also makes Marie a vividly sympathetic figure. The weird spectral jig she dances after her death is one of the production’s most haunting images.

The ultimate question posed by the exercise is whether Büchner’s words illuminate or enhance Schubert’s music, or vice versa – my feeling was that they don’t, and that each would communicate its bleak message of despairing isolation and alienation more strongly had it been left to itself. But Morrison’s imaginative direction, underpinned by Conor Linehan’s sensitive and resourceful pianism, frames an absorbing hundred minutes of theatre, beautifully staged and performed.


Written by Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph 15.09.17