Rock Opera Reborn
DARREN LEVIN was on hand to witness Tim Rogers’ theatrical debut in Malthouse Theatre’s adaptation of 'Woyzeck'.
In the Malthouse’s darkened Merlyn Theatre, still hazy from an over-zealous smoke machine, Don Henley’s velvety pipes wrap around the audience like a warm LA breeze. Someone obviously told the sound guy to turn up the rock tonight – and he’s responded by playing The Eagles to a crowd split between seasoned theatre-goers and neophytes eager to see Tim Rogers in his first stage gig: an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s expressionistic classic Woyzeck.
Written by Büchner in 1837, Woyzeck tells the story of a soldier who ekes out a living for his family by participating in a series of bizarre scientific experiments. He eventually goes mad and murders his adulterous spouse in a Shakespearean-like climax. (It’s hardly a spoiler if the thing was written more than 170 years ago).
Rogers plays the role of the Entertainer, a sort of freewheeling angel of death who strangles people with microphone cables and leads singalongs exalting warlords and excess. His character is an invention by director Michael Kantor, appearing neither in Büchner’s original or the adaptation by Icelandic playwright Gísli Örn Gardarsson (upon which this version is based).
After a barrage of live Glen Branca-style feedback, the voice of Rogers’ Entertainer is the first we hear. Looking like an extra from Waterworld, he emerges from a battle scene playfully strumming a mandolin and singing an ode to mortality: “Everybody knows, anyone can see/That everyone dies but me.” With natural charisma and his idiosyncratic tics, it’s a wonder he’s taken so long to make the transition from treading the bars to treading the boards.
Still, Rogers is adamant in setting the bar low. His bio in the program features a self-deprecating, two-line epithet: “Tim Rogers is, essentially, a novice. He is, however, visibly enthralled to be here.” As a point of comparison, Nick Cave, who has collaborated with Warren Ellis on the play’s music and lyrics, has 38 slobbering lines incorporating the words “majestic”, “intensely personal” and “magnetising”.
Rogers may claim to be a novice – even though he’s probably graced the stage more times than most decorated thespians – but he certainly holds his own among the play’s experienced cast. Adding a genuine sense of rock’n’roll grit to proceedings, he seems equally comfortable singing Cave’s ballads as he is delivering a searing monologue. Such is Kantor’s confidence in Rogers the Actor that he entrusts him the final lines – “a good murder, a proper murder, a lovely murder” – which he delivers with rolling rs and blood-curling glee.
As for Cave and Ellis, the pair tackle the much-maligned rock opera masterfully. Their songs, while seemingly inextricable from the narrative, would work just as well out of context. With military drums, manic violins and gutter poetry, ‘The Drum Major’s Song’ is the best track Grinderman never recorded, while ‘Duett’, which details a fateful tryst between the Drum Major and the flirtatious Marie, is Cave at his tender-loving best. And while he may not get top billing, let’s not forget the additional compositions by Boom Crash Opera guitarist Peter Farnan. His ‘Ave Maria’ is epic and heartbreaking and one of the play’s best.
If it was Kantor’s intent to create “a theatre of psychosis”, then he’s overwhelmingly succeeded. With Rogers as his ringmaster, he cleverly re-imagines Woyzeck as a grotesque Kosky-esque carnival with a non-linear narrative, cross-dressing doctors, overweight santas, obligatory daggers and more tinsel than Christmas Eve.
Thankfully, as the curtain closed on last week’s performance, we had The Eagles there to bring us back down to earth.
Woyzeck is at the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until February 28.