A Korean company performing their own interpretation of a German Expressionist play to contemporary tango music using only chairs could, on paper, be utterly preposterous. Yet, in the flesh, Woyzeck by The Sadari Movement Laboratory (at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night) was an incredibly strong, powerful and moving production presented as part of the London International Mime Festival. Woyzeck deals with sexual jealousy, the brutalising of soldiers by war, paranoia, oppression and class struggle, and The Sadari Movement Laboratory dealt with it all, staying remarkably faithful to the original play while presenting a fresh and meaningful interpretation.
The seemingly incongruous elements combined seamlessly and rather than indulge in the novelty of contrasts, everything complimented each other. The soft, yearning tango music by contemporary composer Astor Piazzolla, the inventive use of the chairs, the tightly choreographed dance and movement sequences was spellbinding, helped enormously by the atmospheric lighting and good sense of pace in the direction - the performance was not a moment too long or too short and scenes were played with a very tight grip on the absolute essentials for the story. Even though half the dialogue was in Korean, we were clear on what was happening throughout, thanks to the combined effects of music, movement and lighting.
And the company of ten performers really did use just ten chairs throughout. Chairs become a cage, then gravestones, then a circus ring, then the tottering frame of Woyzeck's crumbling psyche. One chair even played a significant part in the Sergeant Major's seduction of Woyzeck's lover Marie, providing some interesting ways to get sexy without getting out of your seat. It helps to have steamier bits of Piazzolla's music playing in background and performers who clearly understand the passionate, dark undercurrents of tango as an artform. The skill and focus of the performers were particularly apparent in the many blackouts when the stage was plunged into blackness at the end of one scene, then miraculously brought back into light seconds later with all the chairs re-arranged for the next scene, at times in incredibly intricate formations. How they managed these changes in the dark in less than half a minute is amazing.
There are many companies attempting new interpretations of Woyzeck - in 2006, the Barbican presented Icelandic Vesturport Theatre and their astonishing non-military version complete with aerialists, swimming, singing and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Buchner's endlessly adaptable incomplete play touches on themes we are all unfortunately familiar with and The Sadari Movement Laboratory have achieved a particularly moving interpretation of Woyzeck as one man made a monster through betrayal and a brutal, machismo-driven society. There is impressive discipline in the performers as well as remarkable skill and the ensemble sequences were a pleasure to watch. A delightful production despite the dark edges, as all good Woyzecks should be.
Woyzeck by The Sadari Movement Laboratory at the Queen Elizabeth Hall until Saturday 26 January, as part of the London International Mime Festival. For more information, go to the festival website here.