Spring Awakening

Spring-Awakening-_2909618b‘Spring Awakening’ by Anya Reiss from Frank Wedekind’s original play

at The Richmond Theatre

8th May, 2014

“The fog is clearing; life is a matter of taste.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: abortion, rape, suicide, pornography, masturbation and homosexuality are still hot topics. The issues remain the same, only the method of access is different.  Spring Awakening’ – first performed in 1906 – was highly controversial at the time and remained censored for years. Its author, the German playwright, Frank Wedekind’s subtitle: ‘A Children’s Tragedy’ dedicates the work to parents and teachers. Anya Reiss, a young British playwright updates the play by adding social media and internet porn.

The play opens boldly with uncompromising, graphic sexuality: scenes of male and female teenage masturbation against the background projection of Laurence Olivier as Othello; later, a rape – Melchior (Oliver Johnstone) appears to force himself upon Wendla Bergman (Aoife Duffin). The razor-sharp, bright lights cut through scenes and the pulsing soundtrack is so breathtakingly good that I envisaged Roger Daltrey (as Tommy) bursting on stage singing:  See me, feel me, touch me, heal me’.

Colin Richmond’s playground is a clever construct: a place where children love to experiment. The raw energy and youthfulness is invigorating in the opening silent exchanges as the young cast move autonomously between apparatus without adult supervision. Though the playground is appealing, it collides head-on with the harsh realities that we encounter frequently in real life. Wedekind was concerned about sexual repression of German culture in his time, with ignorance leading to excessive fantasies and acts of self-discovery among teenagers. Parenting may be more liberal these days but channels of communication are still lacking. So an issue such as sex is still seen as leading to misunderstanding. Surely teenagers now are not deluded enough to think that ‘without love it (sex) doesn’t mean anything’?

The play never seemed to flow seamlessly. The fragmented narratives of Wendla and Moritz Stiefe (Bradley Hall) are concluded quite abruptly in the hundred minutes of angst. Sometimes we are lost in the eras of then and now.

There is an attempt to depict a distorted and dark view into the misunderstood world of the teenager.  Spoilers aside, teenage pressures, self-consciousness and inner torment lead to two suicides. Sadly, the lack of depth in characterisation and constant clichés of despair leave us indifferent to the obvious tragedy.  Blurring the line between the adult and teenager, in having the young characters play the role of their parents and teachers seems awkward and leads to an imbalance in the weight of delivery. Clearly, Reiss wishes to make it as much a tale about children playing at grown-up as it is a tale about adults playing children. Yes, this conveys the notion that the teenagers will emerge in to their parents but it doesn’t work.

Reiss exploits Wedekind’s shift to questions of morality in the play’s final moments; the challenge of making the right personal choices, but it all seems too contrived and didactic. We are left, however, with a chilling image of plastic classroom chairs, in disarray, forming a metaphorical and literal graveyard of childhood ignorance.

En route home, I decided that, having not been raised on Twitter and YouTube, I may be the wrong generation to engage with this coming of age drama. I was disappointed with director Ben Kidd’s production as I usually admire Headlong’s work which is guaranteed to push the boundaries.  All said, Reiss is a talented young playwright who credibly captures the banal, off handed exchanges between teenagers.