Supported by thrilling techno beats, the four men of Project Wildeman and the four women of Silbersee enact a parody on modern partying. While their limbs jerk rhythmically up and down and flap from left to right, the distorted grimaces on their faces suggest their mechanical movements are a matter of life and death. Their exhausted panting emphasizes we’re dealing with true people here, though they act like machines. This final tour de force ends the delusional opera Woyzeck, leaving the audience aghast yet rapturous after witnessing one and a half hours of high energy dancing and singing: the applause is long and loud.

Silbersee's <i>Woyzeck</i> © Maarten Vanden Abeele
Silbersee's Woyzeck
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

The dilapidated hall of the former shipyard NDSM (Dutch Docking and Shipping Centre) in Amsterdam-Noord is ideally suited to this physical form of music theatre, the sheer energy of the performance evoking images of toiling labourers. The setting is one of the strong points of the Over het IJ festival: after having crossed the river IJ by (free) ferry, one enters a desolate world of red brick industrial buildings in different states of (dis)repair. The wharf went bankrupt in the early eighties and since then has been occupied by squatters and artists. The Over het IJ Festival was founded in 1993 and has retained its somewhat anarchistic atmosphere: far from the regular concert and theatre halls there’s room for experiment. The audience is refreshingly young and unconventional.

Woyzeck, directed by former singer Romain Bischoff, is loosely based on the play Georg Büchner wrote in 1837 about a poor soldier who killed his wife Marie in 1821, and was beheaded three years later. This was the period of burgeoning psychiatry, and Woyzeck was analysed to suffer from delusions. This didn’t prevent his public execution, however. His sad case inspired many artists, among them the composer Alban Berg (opera Wozzeck, 1925) and film director Werner Herzog (Woyzeck, 1979). For this new production Silbersee and Project Wildeman based themselves not only on Büchner’s play, but also on the forensic reports of the various doctors that examined Woyzeck. They focus on Woyzeck’s delusions.

<i>Woyzeck</i> at Amsterdam Docklands © Maarten Vanden Abeele
Woyzeck at Amsterdam Docklands
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

A grandstand offers room to some hundred people, yet looks minute in the immense hall – by the pure size of the venue we are confronted with the insignificance of our daily preoccupations. When the play begins Woyzeck occupies a watchtower, looking at us through a spyglass: not only he, but also we ourselves are under surveillance. His wife Marie is preparing dinner – a scanty ration of uncooked peas - but when he finally descends and comes to table, Woyzeck gets lost in his daydreams. These take the form of three couples: a macho and his sexy lover in a tight bodysuit; a man in ballerina outfit and a prim woman in tartan skirt, and a man in military jacket accompanied by a woman in a rock and roll dress.

They move about vehemently, provoking and subduing each other in wild macho and sex games, often creating pulsating rhythms with only the use of their breaths. Sometimes the women burst into song, now solo, then in enticing, lyrical polyphony. The rock and roll lady challenges the macho with rude trumpet calls that he responds to by barking like a dog on a mini trumpet; the military man plays guitar and sampler, while the ballerina man hits the strings of a broken piano soundboard. The actions and mimicry of the three delusional couples are the most colourful and varied, thrilling the audience with their manic outbursts.

The main characters of Woyzeck and Marie remain a little nondescript. One would have wished for some more dramatic development, for by only zooming in on Woyzeck’s fantasies, his tragedy remains somewhat abstract, and his murder of Marie comes almost as a surprise. Yet the high voltage performance and apparent enthusiasm of Silbersee and Project Wildeman is awe-inspiring.