The real Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824) was a jobbing soldier driven mad by an unhappy love-life and the vicissitudes of war, but it was the class system which decreed his beheading for the murder of his unfaithful wife. Georg Buchner, who had inside knowledge of his case, turned his story into a play presenting him as ‘rationally’ paranoid, in that the world really was out to get him. And this was also the premise underpinning Alban Berg’s Wozzeck a century later. All Wozzeck’s encounters with his social superiors – the Captain who accuses him of degeneracy, the Doctor who uses him as a scientific guinea-pig, and the priapic Drum Major who makes off with his wife – are designed to humiliate him beyond endurance.
Most stagings take their cue from the Expressionist imagery of this anti-hero’s obsessive thoughts - that each soul is a frightful abyss, and that the skies are stained with fire and blood - and their Wozzecks are deranged from the start. Carrie Cracknell’s ENO production eschews such clichéd artiness in favour of a painfully topical realism.
Tom Scutt’s all-purpose set is a cut-away building where Wozzeck’s Marie inhabits a council-house parlour, with a rough brown pub below; notices welcoming back ‘our boys’, and the tramp of soldiers bearing Union Jack-draped coffins, bring Wozzeck’s underclass world bang up to date. And through it all, like a ghastly leitmotiv, a silent figure intermittently glides with a female corpse slung over its shoulder. Thus does Cracknell establish the hallucinatory quality which pervades this production, whose radical premise, fleshed out in a variety of ways, is that this Wozzeck is a victim, not of paranoia, but of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Tom Randle’s Captain and Bryan Register’s Drum Major are horribly recognisable army types, James Morris’s Doctor is a bombastic bully, and Leigh Melrose’s jumpy Wozzeck gets his balls broken by Sara Jakubiak’s Essex-girl Marie. But through the beauty of their singing and the brilliance of Cracknell’s direction, Melrose and Jakubiak transcend their stereotypes to create a searingly human tragedy.
The forest pool in which Wozzeck drowns exists here only in his imagination, but the murder and suicide are shockingly, bloodily real. What compounds this shock a thousandfold is the seamless unity between the visible onstage world and the musical world generated by Edward Gardner in the pit, where Berg’s exquisite musical patterns – poised and controlled while Wozzeck’s utterances become stark and fragmented - are sculpted with fastidious grace.