Drawing on themes of abandonment, isolation and the fragility of the mind, Creature by Akram Khan is inspired by George Büchner’s play Woyzeck, with shadows of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Before the world premiere at Sadler’s Wells next month, find out more about the texts that have shaped his Creature.
“Creature started with the Prometheus story, which is something that Akram’s been interested in for a long time. What he is drawn to in that story is the idea that our human gifts can also become our curses.”
“So that led us to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the subtitle of which is The Modern Prometheus.” “The theme of that story is abandonment and the longing for love.”
“We looked around at a lot of other Promethean stories, particularly focusing on the idea of experimental subjects, exploitation, and the obsession with human hacks and fixes. We came to Woyzeck, which was written at almost the exact same time as the revised edition of Frankenstein in the 1830s.”Dramaturg Ruth Little
“The story of Woyzeck was really impressionable on me because what I love about it is that each scene is a world in itself.”Akram Khan
What is the story of Woyzeck?
Büchner’s psychological drama follows the title character and his descent into insanity because of poverty, cruelty and loneliness.
In order to provide extra money for his partner Marie and their child, Woyzeck, a military barber, is the subject of physical and psychological experimentation by a doctor. The effects the experiment has on Woyzeck drive Marie away from him, and she becomes increasingly drawn toward a drum major, who she has an affair with. Meanwhile, Woyzeck suffers from apocalyptic visons and begins to suspect Marie of infidelity. After receiving a beating from Marie’s lover, Woyzeck stabs Marie to death and is last seen disposing of the knife and cleaning himself of her blood.
Büchner took inspiration from the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker and soldier: in 1821, in a fit of jealousy, he murdered Christiane Woost, a widow with whom he had been living. At his trial, his lawyer pleaded that he was insane – the first time in German history that insanity was used in defence – and Woyzeck was examined for several months. He was regarded as sane enough to be responsible of his actions, and was executed.
Woyzeck across artforms
Büchner began writing the play in 1836, but as he died in 1837 before completing the play, it was only published years later in 1875 and 1877.
Woyzeck is his most celebrated and well-known work. What’s curious about it is that the work is made of dramatic fragments – rather than being whole: the scenes he left behind were unordered.
Since Büchner’s play was discovered, many artists have taken advantage of the creative license that Woyzeck offers with its incomplete and reordered scenes to explore its core themes in different ways.
Check out this timeline for an overview of how Woyzeck has been adapted through the years and across artforms:
First performance of Büchner’s work, 1913
- Opened at the Residenztheater in Munich on 8 November
- More than 70 years after Büchner’s death (19 October 1837)
- Only those of high status were able to attend, as it was held in a palace building, quite the irony given the play’s themes of disadvantage and exploitation due to socioeconomic status.
- This is the first opera version, by Alban Berg, and is perhaps the most well-known adaptation of this story
- It was composed between 1914 and 1922and opened at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December
- It is a 3-act opera with 15 scenes, dealing with brutality and casual sadism
- This opera was composed by Manfred Gurlitt and opened around the same time as Berg’s opera; and is not as well known
- Opened at Stadttheater, Bremen, Germany on 22 April
- It comprises 18 scenes and one epilogue
- In this version, Wozzeck commits suicide after killing Marie; this occurs during the epilogue. Besides this addition, Gurlitt stayed true to the original text, which is fractured and non-linear. In other versions, scenes/details are added in to fill gaps in the original text.
- German film by Georg C. Klaren, starring Kurt Meisel, Max Eckard and Helga Zülch
- The film features an embedded narrative – it begins with medical students looking at a cadaver, Franz Wozzeck. One student recounts the story of Wozzeck with empathy for his suffering, while his peers and instructor regard him as a murderer.
- German film by Werner Herzog
- The film stars Klaus Kinski, famous for his leading roles in other Herzog movies, including Noseferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre the Wrath of God.
- The film was in competition at Cannes Film Festival.
- “Herzog cherishes as well as guards the mystery at the heart of Woyzeck” wrote the New York Times.
Woyzeck’s Head, 1991
- Novel written by Ekbert Faas
- The novel focuses on the roles of scientific institutions, on psychological deterioration, and questions the validity of using violence to keep people in line.
- The reader understands different viewpoints within the story, there is no clear villain: the good and evil are seen in all characters
The Drowned Man, 2013
- A site-specific, interactive theatre work based on Woyzeck by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, in collaboration with the National Theatre
- The work was the largest installation created by Punchdrunk; it occupied four floors of a disused Royal Mail sorting centre near Paddington Station, which had been transformed into the British outpost of a fictional Hollywood film studio called ‘Temple Pictures’
- The audience were free to roam the entire location, where different parts of the action played out concurrently
- The narrative followed two couples, one inside Temple Studios, the other living on the fringe of Hollywood, and drew inspiration from Büchner’s key themes of exploitation, murder, ‘madness’ and infidelity
Woyzeck on the Highveld, 1992
- Handspring Puppet Company, the puppet company best known to the world for creating the puppets of War Horse, performed a puppet adaptation of the play set in the fraught years of apartheid in South Africa
- This production toured in South Africa and internationally on and off for two decades
- In this adaptation, Woyzeck is a migrant worker in a brutal industrial landscape of Johannesburg in the 1950s
- The puppets portray Woyzeck’s increasingly tortured frame of mind
- Opened at The Old Vic, London on May 15, 2017
- This version was adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Joe Murphy, and starred John Boyega
- Set in 1980s Berlin, with the backdrop of the Cold War
- Woyzeck’s suffers from mental health related issues due to child abuse and traumatic memories from his time as a soldier in Northern Ireland. The experimental medical treatment he receives brings these issues to the surface
- The ghost of his mother is what drives him to act in erratic ways.
- The play addresses the longstanding issues due to familial issues in addition to the abuse the rich inflict on the poor
Find out how Akram Khan will reinterpret Woyzeck’s themes of abandonment, isolation and the fragility of the mind with his new ballet Creature. Book your tickets to see the highly-anticipated world premiere at Sadler’s Wells from 23 September – 2 October 2021.