Do Not Blow Out the Sun: A review of ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld by The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa in collaboration with animation by William Kentridge.

Georg Buchner  probably began writing ‘Woyzeck’ between June and September 1836. It remained in a fragmentary state at the time of his early death in 1837.Woyzeck’ was first published in 1879 in a heavily reworked version by Karl Emil Franzos. It received its first performance on November 8,1913 at the Residenztheater, Munich. It has been called ‘a poor man’s tragedy’ . Karl Marx was to publish his early analysis of social problems in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848), not so long after Buchner had begun working on his story.

In his version, Franz Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a provincial German town, is living with Marie, and is father of an illegitimate child, thus a child not blessed by the church.  Woyzeck earns extra money for his family by performing menial jobs and agreeing to take part in medical experiments conducted by the Doctor. As one of these experiments, the Doctor tells Woyzeck he must eat nothing but peas. It is obvious that Woyzeck’s mental health is breaking down, and he begins to experience a series of apocalyptic visions. In ‘Woyzeck’, having moral virtue and human value is associated with status. The poor are considered to be inherently morally inferior.

‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ is an apocalyptic vision of South Africa in the nineteen fifties, but it is not simply a period piece about South Africa; it is a version of us. I saw the play in Oxford, to cheers from many young people, but with some members of the older audience stating that they didn’t understand the plot, or viewing it  ‘as rather Marxist and that is worrying in the South African context of today’. Of course, there were those who had read the original ‘Woyzeck’ .

To me it wasn’t about the plot- and when the ‘barker’ or  ‘narrator’ says as the almost opening line, ‘This play is about a murder’ , it is an ironical life-line for those who need plots.’Woyzeck on the Highveld’ is uninterrupted despair and chaos. It is not devoid of humour, nor is cruelty. It was not necessary to know what the play was about; it was necessary only to  feel the play through the visual animation with its miraculous timing, the rhythm of the language and music, the shadow puppetry, the disruptive sounds of violence and the desperate alienation of its characters. There was pathos in the attempt of characters not to be alienated. Explosions which are heard are not only physically disorienting, but also morally nihilistic. In cataclysmic destruction, we are  objects not actors. Although ‘Crime and Punishment’  (1866) and ‘The Fall’ (1956) were not yet written, Woyzeck too confronts meaninglessness.

This’ Woyzeck’ is framed by several literary devices: there is the stage frame; there is the narrator who frames a story (partial); there are the puppets who enact the story; behind each puppet is the puppet handler, who dressed in black, visibly  moves a  puppet and speaks for it; and centrally, at the back is the small animation screen. This network of frames seems to be in place to keep us looking beyond and beyond. Suddenly the narrator returns us to the front of the stage, to ‘the real world’. And the receding process begins again. Each frame is a focus- sharpener for the next .When you reach the screen, words are lost, replaced by the concrete.

It is relevant to consider the self-refective position of  puppeteer and puppet. One is active, the other is passive. Or perhaps, the puppets become more than puppets? The faces of the puppeteers reflect the changing emotions of the puppets, while the puppets, carved out of wood, are unable to change their expressions. Feelings in the puppets are conveyed by subtle movements in the puppet bodies that is reminiscent of Japanese dance.

There are suggestions of African myths and mythological time. ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ is a mythological time in which we are living, if only briefly. What survives it is human creativity and from ‘Woyzeck’, we must heed the necessity to re-invent ourselves. In the process of the search for our personal resurrection, we must remember not to blow out the sun.

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