The paradox of “Woyzeck” is simple: Georg Büchner’s play is unfinished, but unimprovable. Based on a real-life murder case, a story of a soldier who self-destructs, it is brilliantly broken, powerful precisely because it remains incomplete. Many have tried to fill in its gaps and succeeded only in flattening it out. The new version by Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) makes a virtue of its form. Here, the play seems to split its seams and fragment, just as its protagonist does, and John Boyega, fresh from “Star Wars,” plays the title role with a potent, unfettered simplicity: his Woyzeck is a decent young guy who disintegrates completely.

If Woyzeck is an abstract everyman, Thorne grounds him in particulars: a British soldier stationed in Cold War Berlin after a traumatic experience in Belfast at the height of the troubles. These are places divided against themselves, both under military occupation. The same might be said of Woyzeck himself, and Thorne makes clear that he contains clashes and contradictions. His Woyzeck is always two things at once: a fighter and a father, a sensitive and a stallion, a danger and a protector rolled into one. Such is man, Thorne might say, stretched in all directions until he snaps.

Boyega’s approach is a kind of blankness, in the best possible way. On the surface at least, his Woyzeck is a straightforward soul. A rank and file, working class soldier, his is not to reason why, and he follows impulses like he follows orders. He’ll loll with his Irish Catholic girlfriend Marie (Sarah Greene) in bed, then hop up to check on their crying newborn child. He’s boisterous and braggadocio with his patrol buddy Andrews (Ben Batt), then entirely acquiescent with his superior officer (Steffan Rhodri), carefully shaving his chin or kneading the knots out of his back. He continually flashes back to his childhood: a foster kid forced to watch his prostitute mother at work.

In all this, Thorne foregrounds class. Woyzeck is too trusting by half. He nods along, half listening, to Captain Thompson and swallows whatever pills his deranged German doctor (Darrell D’Silva) pushes on him in drug trials. He accepts the sneering moral judgments of the Captain’s adulterous wife — a super-posh Nancy Carroll — and struggles to communicate across the class divide, particularly when it comes to irony. All of these things collide in one man, pulling him this way and that.

In Tom Scutt’s sculptural design, grey slabs descend from the flies, each a wall filled with insulation foam. They are uniform, monolithic and in formation; square, steely and soft on the inside. So many solidiers, perhaps, or so many graves. Or maybe just walls — the partitions that divide cities and, indeed, personalities, and that keep things separate.

Life, as Büchner’s play knows all too well, isn’t like that. It’s not so fixed, and neither is Scutt’s set. The walls move. They weigh down on Woyzeck like a metal crusher, or slide in from the side like spikes. Sometimes they undulate and ripple, sometimes they churn like pistons. The world seems horribly, queasily, frightfully unstable.

The same goes for Thorne’s script. At first, characters curve into eccentricity – horsey poshos and off-the-wall doctors – but as it continues, the tone starts to swing wildly, careering between broad comedy to brutish violence. Scatological statements twist from gruesome humor to grim horror, and a grounded reality spins into something more subjective: a swirl of memories, hallucinations and night-sweats. The effect is dizzying, almost centrifugal, as the particularities fall off and the play’s abstract forces come to the surface: Woyzeck as father, fighter, lover and lost boy. It becomes harder and harder to keep a handle of Joe Murphy’s production, allowing it to snap to a genuinely shellshocking climax.

London Theater Review: ‘Woyzeck’ Starring John Boyega

Old Vic Theatre, Kingston; 1067 seats; £61, $73 top. Opened, May 23, 2017 reviewed May 23, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS.

  • Production: An Old Vic production of a play in two acts by Georg Buchner in a new version by Jack Thorne.
  • Crew: Directed by Joe Murphy. Set design, Tom Scutt; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Gareth Fry; composer, Isobel Waller-Bridge; movement, Polly Bennett;  fight direction, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown; illusion, Ben Hart.
  • Cast: John Boyega, Ben Batt, Carlo Brathwaite, Nancy Carroll, Darrell D’Silva, Sarah Greene, Reuel Guzman, Isabella Marshall, Cyrus Odukale, Steffan Rhodri, David Rubin, Theo Solomon.