Wozzeck: Director’s Note

William Kentridge

In my studio in Johannesburg we made a cardboard cupboard (I’d just seen an exhibition of the works of the Polish director, Tadeusz Kantor). In this cupboard we placed two actors (in gasmasks) throwing a doll (with a gasmask) back and forth. We cut a trap door in the back of the cupboard and had a stream of twenty people impossibly exit the cupboard. We put the cupboard on wheels and sent it across the studio with a small brass band in it (and falling out of it). We filmed our brass band in silhouette. We placed an actor as an orator on the roof of the cupboard – and hastily brought him back to ground – the cupboard was collapsing. We made a horse out of two actors, a broomstick and a flag. We strapped wooden planks to the actors’ legs and made them dance (a polka) with chairs as partners. No action was so stupid as we would not try it. I made drawings of landscapes, of blasted buildings, of severed heads, of wounded bodies, of night skies. I pinned the heads to the landscapes. We projected these inside the cupboard and on the studio wall behind the cupboard.

Our only hope was that in the openness of looking, of listening to the music of the opera, connections would be found, or rather moments would be recognised. Connections between an image and the music or between a gesture and the libretto. We were looking for a practical thinking in the material – thinking through the projections, thinking through the material and movement of the body. Our hope was that these materials would lead the thinking (to somewhere unanticipated at the start of the process). Connections presented themselves in all registers. Connections of tempo, of emotional intensity, of the ideas spawned by them that connected to other knowledges of history, of militarism, of poverty, of desperation. Working this way entails an understanding that the production always hovers somewhere between the stage and the audience. The music, the voice, the staging comes towards the audience and is met with all the associations that rise up in each audience member. In the workshops we all shifted continuously between makers and observers, trying to track what each new improvisation provoked in us. It became clear we needed charcoal drawings rather than ink drawings. The large projections that filled the stage became the world inside Wozzeck’s head, the cupboard became the doctor’s consulting room, the small screen became the captain’s attribute.

The explosions on the screen are both in Wozzeck from 1837 when Büchner wrote his play, with all his images of the heavens exploding above him, but also too familiar to all of us from the black and white archival films of mines and artillery shells exploding on the Western Front. The production became a premonition of the Great War. Against this is the space that the familiar opera unfolds, with its examination of how violence is bred, of humiliation and degradation, the cynicism and cruelty of the captain, the doctor in 1837, all echoing the writings about military doctors and officers eighty years after Büchner.

* A footnote on the child: There is no good solution.

One watches children and animals on stage in a different way to the other actors. We are anxious about something going wrong, acutely aware of the artifice of what one is watching. When one watches a twelve-year-old pretending to be a three-year-old, we are acutely aware that someone is pretending to be someone else and we are pretending not to notice. With a puppet you are certainly aware that you are not watching a child but (if we do it well) you are held in a double vision of seeing the wood of the puppet and also seeing the child’s energy and agency emerging from the manipulated pieces of wood. This is an involuntary recognition, not a generosity on the part of the audience (which is needed when we watch the real child), but done in spite of ourselves – an unwilling suspension of disbelief.

Though in truth the rudimentary puppet we made was a placeholder, waiting for a real child in rehearsals, or at least a better carved and more articulated marionette.* But in the end we accepted it as it was (and spent much time on the choreography of the manipulators and the hobbyhorse).

* One final footnote.

The we that I refer to is the team of collaborators I worked with in making the production. Designers of the set, the costumes, the light, the video construction, editors, actors and dancers. We had two workshops of about ten days each in my studio in Johannesburg, in which the grammar and vocabulary of the production was developed.