Woyzeck in Winter is a combination of two remarkable masterworks: Büchner’s Woyzeck and Schubert’s Winterreise.
It came from a dawning realisation by writer-director Conall Morrison that the two pieces were almost like non-identical twins – with different features but possessing huge similarities and an uncanny inter-connectedness.
Woyzeck and Die Winterreise were written within ten years of each other – the twenty-four songs of the cycle in 1827, the twenty-six scenes of the play in 1836 – both by troubled geniuses who died young. But the connections are more than anecdotal and numerical. It is as if both pieces are breathing the same air, concerning as they do an alienated central character adrift in a world of madness, jealousy, doomed love, the hostility of nature. Büchner’s play is composed of brief, shard-like scenes that tell the story of Franz Woyzeck, his madness, and the sequence of events that lead to him killing his unfaithful wife. Winterreise dramatises a heartbroken obsessive, staggering through the winter wastes towards his own destruction. The play gives a context and structure that animate the songs, and the songs liberate and illuminate the strangled eloquence inside poor Woyzeck’s mind.
Both the play and the song cycle depict where the mind will journey when the heart is broken. They are stark, but as gripping as they are deeply moving, shot through with an arresting beauty. Woyzeck in Winter is composed out of these startlingly vivid snapshots of lives lived at the edge of passion, fused into a new, electrifying whole.
Not all of the songs from the cycle are sung. Some are reprised, some sung as duets, some sung chorally. At points the piano score, without vocals, is used to reflect and amplify the atmospheres and emotional action. Schubert’s music and Müller’s lyrics, freely adapted by librettist Stephen Clark, are the emotional landscape of the play writ large. With the lyrics in English, the songs are revealed to an audience wider than the concert hall, their tales of love and estrangement communicated with raw immediacy. Read some sample lyrics here.
The play takes place on a mountainscape – designed by Jamie Vartan – of old pianos. Amongst those pianos is a Steinway grand played by the concert pianist Conor Linehan, who is musical director. The piano not only creates the emotional atmospheres but also functions as a metaphor for the human mind: this infinitely expressive but highly fragile instrument that can so easily go ‘out of tune’.
A cast of ten play all the roles, with characters other than Woyzeck singing some of the songs – for example, Marie sings The Signpost, Backward Glance and The Inn. Other characters too have songs and the piano score to represent an inner emotional life that they do not have the formal articulacy to express. The cast is made up of skilled actor-singers, rather than classically trained singers. They are highly musically dextrous, but with neither a classical nor a musical theatre sound – actors with voices of character and colour, albeit voices that are good ‘instruments’ too.
Schubert’s extraordinary soundworld gives musical expression to many of the latent dramatic ideas in Büchner’s play, and Büchner’s play gives a new superstructure to the song-cycle, so that the combined effect is to animate a rich and complex totality: a tragic love story where jealousy and sexual rage result in violence; an arena for dark comedy; a damning social critique and a debate on free will; a lower-class King Lear with its depiction of man’s relation to the cosmos – all of it circumscribed by the mysterious nature of music, infinitely eloquent but non-literal – a felt, mysterious language that takes us beyond words, into the deep shadowlands of the heart.
With the support of the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon and Culture Ireland, Woyzeck in Winter had its world premiere, as a co-production between Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, in July 2017. Co-commissioned by the Barbican, London, it plays there in September 2017 and at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2017. A further international tour is planned for 2018-2019.