Woyzeck on the Highveld

Tue 8th – Sat 12th November 2011


Samuel Kampa

at 22:50 on 8th Nov 2011



Due to its conceptual creativity, its lovely puppetry, and the obvious excellence of its director, William Kentridge, Woyzeck on the Highveld is indeed a successful production. The show is both visually dazzling and artistically complex, and the puppetry aptly captures the dramatic heart of the story. However, given the high potential of the production, I was a bit disappointed by the writing, for I felt that it suffered from one-dimensionality, overstatement and melodrama. Nonetheless, Woyzeck on the Highveld remains an adventurous and complex piece of theatrical art.

An adaptation of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck - an early nineteenth century German play which explores madness, human depravity and societal ambivalence - Woyzeck on the Highveld employs puppetry, animation and music to convey these same basic themes. Set in 1950's Johannesburg, the music and set design are clearly reflective of its social context, much to the advantage of the production. The use of muted colors in the industrially-styled set and the employment of black and white animations heightened the feelings of working-class alienation and monotony which the director sought to elicit. The minimalistic folk music reinforced the obsessive madness of the character Woyzeck (played brilliantly by Hamilton Dhlamini), although by the end of the show, the recycled motives felt more redundant than meditative. The puppetry constituted the strongest element of the production, for the emaciated forms of the puppets (thanks to Adrian Kohler's wonderful designs) captured the depravity, exhaustion and pain of the characters in a potent manner. Manipulated with ease and used in creative ways, the puppets were both lifelike and full of symbolic import. Thus, the use of frail puppets and erratic animations was remarkably appropriate for the psychologically intense subject matter.

However, the script was unfortunately the weakest element of the show. The line between tragedy and melodrama is rather fine, and the playwright seemed to cross this line on more than one occasion. To what extent the Handspring Puppet Company altered or adapted the source material, I am not sure - perhaps I am criticizing Buchner rather than the producers of this adaptation. Regardless, I felt that the script suffered from static characterization which bordered on caricature, heavy-handed philosophical musings that lacked cohesion, and - at the risk of putting it too strongly - self-important "statements." The existential anxiety inherent in the story felt overstated. For example, at one point in the show, a character repeats the question "Why does Man exist?" three times. I take issue with this writing, in part because the language is overwrought, and because it makes explicit a dilemma which should have been made implicit - and indeed was implicit - throughout the entire show. These and other literary decisions lacked dramatic subtlety in my opinion. This sense of overstatement sometimes trickled into the actor's performances, for although the acting was generally excellent, it sometimes rose to a rather fevered pitch and felt overdone. On another note, the pacing was jarring and inconsistent. Extremely meditative scenes were followed by quick bursts of action, without clear narrative purpose. Although the producers would likely retort - perhaps rightly - that this was a purposeful dramatic device designed to express the erratic nature of madness, such pacing can only be sustained for so long before it becomes grating. It doesn't necessarily take long to "get the point"; after this point, narrative aimlessness can feel frustrating.

I'll temper my critiques by admitting that the audience members around me seemed to love the production; thus, I may be speaking too harshly. To restate my evaluation, I hardly disliked the production, but I do think that literary revision and tighter pacing would have been beneficial to the show.


Emma Yandle

at 01:59 on 9th Nov 2011



My knowledge of puppet shows being limited to amateur family productions, I was fascinated to see how the company behind War Horse could show the breakdown of a tortured soul, using a puppet and without the result feeling trivial or farcical. Their answer was to jam their short (1 hour 20, no interval) production with special effects: puppets working against a projected background showing Dali-esque visuals, interludes with a sort of ringmaster figure that were often unrelated to the main action, various musical refrains and generally a lot of bathos. Fans of experimental theatre will want to check out 'Woyzeck on the Highveld' for its certainly innovative pairing of multi-media with puppets to present a tragedy originally written in 1800s. The projected screen allowed for a direct visualisation of the hero’s mind, with certain images gaining significance as the play gathered momentum. As Woyzeck’s thoughts become increasingly nightmarish, so does what we see on the screen and the effect forces an unsettling insight that clearly could not have been captured in a realistic rendering of the play.

However, for all the innovation, as a member of the audience I felt oddly left out from ‘the joke’ as I watched the production. It was at times scary, at times funny, certainly bizarre, but the overriding feeling was that interactions and images held a lot of meaning to the characters, but that this sense wasn’t communicated to the audience. Images would flash on the screen: ears, magnets, bones, animals, household items, without any rhyme or reason and so they often felt gratuitous and pointless. The most striking element of the play was not really to do with the content at all, but more the powerful visual image of two men controlling a third, the puppet. Topical to a play where there is a distinct sense of ‘us’ against ‘them’ between the classes and where the main character is beholden to two of ‘them’ for his money and living, but really, the power came from the symbolic image of control that only a puppet can give, rather than something specific to the play itself. Another highlight was the heartbroken warbling song of Andrea, a puppet who convincingly plays the accordion, and this refrain that pervades the production. The words were foreign, and for all not understanding was frustrating with the images on screen, here it worked perfectly to show an incomprehensible sadness. It kept me caring about the fate of Woyzeck the puppet, which was important in a play that so continually undercut its tragic moments with a change of mood that it didn’t seem to care much for the catastrophes of its characters.

Stand out lines included ‘I’ll live as long as I exist’ and one of Woyzeck’s last, thrown out by a glance to the audience: ‘Hey, what are you all staring at? Look at yourselves’. Regarding acting, it’s hard to judge when the faces you’re focusing on are literally wooden, but I must say whoever carved out Woyzeck gave him a wonderful look of hopeless angst that I swear managed to be expressive, despite only his mouth moving. A wooden rhinoceros puppet also made a surprise appearance and in my opinion stole the show. It should also be noted that I’ve never seen such an enthusiastic curtain call as the cast of ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ gave and it was clear from the precise timing and this enthusiasm that they really enjoy what they do. As did the rest of the audience, whose excited clapping and cheering belied my silent reservations.


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