Woyzech: puppets for grownups

Woyzech on the Highveld Woyzech on the Highveld brings together
puppets, actors and animated film
to graphically illustrate Woyzeck’s tortured
mind as he tries to make sense of the
happenings in his life.
(Image: Ruphin Coudyzer)

Woyzech on the Highveld Basil Jones and Louis Seboko, who plays
the title character, with the puppet
(Image: Ruphin Coudyzer)

Woyzech on the Highveld Busi Zokufa and puppet play Maria,
Woyzech’s love interest.
(Image: Ruphin Coudyzer)

Woyzech on the Highveld During his travails Woyzek allows himself
to be subjected to medical experiments
(Image: Ruphin Coudyzer)

Tamara O’Reilly

Puppets, like most things, have evolved: from talking socks and paper origami to life-sized, life-like manipulable objects enthralling kids and adults alike in productions around the world.

One such production for grownups can be found at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg’s city centre, where Woyzech on the Highveld is being performed for the next six weeks. The play premiered here in 1992, when it ran for twice as long, now and accumulated honours such as the 1993 Vita Award for Production as well as the 1995 Vita award for Director of the Year.

The genius behind the design is internationally acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, working with the Handspring Puppet Company, founded by director Basil Jones. Together they bring together puppets, actors and animated film to graphically illustrate Woyzeck`s tortured mind as he tries to make sense of the happenings in his life.

Woyzeck on the Highveld tells the story of a man who falls in love with a young woman in his village. To earn enough money for her and her child, he undergoes a series of medical experiments. When he discovers the woman is unfaithful, he becomes delusional and murders her.

The German connection

The play is based on the classic 19-century German play Woyzek by writer and dramatist Georg Buchner, but adapted to suit South African audiences. Buchner’s Woyzek was a German soldier in the 1800s but in this version the protagonist is a migrant worker surrounded by a lonely barren landscape of industrialisation that is Johannesburg in 1965.

From the Market Theatre the play travels to Cape Town and then tours the world. First stop is Perth, Australia to participate in a world puppetry festival – an annual gathering of serious to novice puppeteers and like minded fans of this art form – thereafter Norway, the US and hopefully Germany, with whom the play and puppets share a strong kinship.

“It’s an interesting story, our relationship with Germany,” says the show’s producer, Basil Jones. “After four years of performing the show we decided that was it. We weren’t going to do Woyzech on the Highveld anymore and so we sold the puppets to the Munich City Museum to help fund a theatre we were building.”

In 2007 the producers could not turn down a recommission of the show. But puppet maker Adrian Kohler, despite his adeptness, would have been unable to carve the puppets in time and to his liking for the show. “Besides, Woyzech is such a special character that only the original was an option,” says Jones, “so we literally had to beg the museum to lend us Woyzech for the next two years.”

Puppets and actors

The puppets are made from light wood, which allows the actors to hold them upright for the 90-minute play without tiring. Their gestures and expressions are achieved as the actors tug on the appropriate strings attached to them.

As much as the show is about the life-like dolls, the actors are an integral part of the production, as they provide a two- and sometimes three-dimensional take on a scene. Adding another dimension to the production is the use of visuals and music.

“We found that when a puppet is still, by using moving objects in the background – in this case images – it’s as though you are going into the mind of the puppet,” says Jones. “Audiences love this technique and when it’s combined with music it achieves something extraordinary.”

According to Jones, puppeteering has quite a following in other countries. He has just returned from the Olivier Theatre in London where Warhorse, a production he lent his expertise to, had an extremely successful run.

“The TimeOut London magazine loved it … they even wrote an article potently claiming that ‘Puppets are the new rock and roll’ and for them to make such a poignant statement was really brave and showed just how much they embraced this kind of theatre,” says Jones.

But at home many people still see puppets as playthings for children’s amusement.

“I don’t think South Africans are really used to this type of theatre,” says Busi Zekofa, who plays Maria, Woyzech’s love interest. “There’s something really magnificent about puppets and there are things you can do with them that you won’t be able to achieve with human actors but people don’t really understand that.”

Adds Jones: “It’s a hell of a thing to take a wooden thing and make it live. You have got to trust the objects and pour all your feelings into it.

“I’m expecting Woyzech to be very popular because South Africans truly appreciate theatre and since it played all those years ago, it has come to be known by many as a one-of-a-kind production.”

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