Woyzeck on the Highveld: Director’s Note

William Kentridge

Director’s note for Woyzeck on the Highveld, first written in 1992 for the première at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg; updated for a revival performed in many cities in Europe, 2009-2013.


In the strange, convoluted world of oppression and enlightenment that constituted Prussia in the 19th century, there was a law which stated that anyone condemned to death, had first to be examined by a psychiatrist before he could be executed. The psychiatric report of one such person, a private in the army condemned to death for the murder of his common law wife, formed the basis of the play Woyzeck, written by Georg Buchner, in 1837. The play was an unfinished series of fragments at the time of the author’s death at the age of 23, and it was not performed until some 76 years later. Since then its mixture of fragmentation, rationality and irrationality, have made it a central text in 20th century theatre. Handspring Puppet Company and I were drawn to the text both for its substance but also for its abbreviated, fragmentary form. Both puppetry and animation are short forms, puppetry because of the conflict between the weight of a puppet and the strength of an arm, animation because of the hours of labour needed to draw even short sequences.

This production was the first collaboration between myself and Handspring Puppet Company, and when we made it some 15 years ago, we had the blessing of absolutely not knowing what we were doing: making the form, and the grammar of the form, as we went along. In the subsequent productions of Faustus in Africa!, Ubu Tells the Truth, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, and Confessions of Zeno, we have always worked with the disadvantage of hindsight. In this presentation, there are some changes of puppetry controls, some changes of manipulation, but essentially we are making a re-staging of the original production. The cast is the same, with the exception of Tale Motsepe, whose role is now played by Mncedisi Shabangu.

We hope new audiences find pleasure both in Buchner’s remarkable text, and our production of it. But in truth this re-staging is a gift to ourselves, as we try to rediscover some of the things we did not know.


Original Director’s Note for the 1992 production

I first came across the play Woyzeck in Barney Simon’s remarkable production in the old Arena Theatre in Doornfontein in the 1970s. Characters and images from the play have floated on the edges of my consciousness since then. For many years I have wanted to do some form of production of the work as it seemed to me that the anguish and desperation of Buchner’s text does not need to be locked into the context of Germany in the 19th century, and that the similar circumstances that exist in South Africa today make this play completely eloquent in a local setting.

The second source of this production is to be found in the desire to work with puppetry in general and the Handspring Puppet Company in particular – to work in an area in which performance and drawing come together, to try to see if one could find an emotional depth and weight without recourse to the obvious techniques of psychological transformation of an actor’s face.

The third source is the animated films that I have been making. The cumbersome and archaic technique of charcoal drawing and erasure that I use imposes severe limitations on the mobility and interaction of the drawn figures. Working with puppets and these animated films attempts to bring the possibilities of versatile three-dimensional movements into the work I have been doing.

This is my first experience of working with puppets and the discoveries have been enormous. Each day of rehearsal has brought revelations of the things that puppets can do better than their living counterparts (try training a rhinoceros to write or an infant to fly on cue). Also worth watching out for is that strange condition where the manipulation of the puppets is completely transparent, where, in spite of seeing the palpable artificiality of the movement of the puppet, one cannot stop believing in the puppet’s own volition and autonomy.