Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

A play best known for scandalising audiences in the late 19th century is always going to have trouble creating quite as much impact in the 21st. Any production of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening now has an additional hurdle if it wants to stand out, as Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's musical version raised the bar in its irreverence and energy. The last production of the straight play I saw felt dry, like it was simply missing the songs, but Headlong is the kind of company that exists to see things differently, and this new version quickly imprints its own identity on the play. It's the story of Melchior (Oliver Johnstone,) a nihilistic teenager at the centre of a group of friends trying, with limited success, to tackle growing up. The adults in their lives are no help, in fact whether they're putting undue pressure on their children or leaving important gaps in their sexual education, they're most often a hindrance.

Anya Reiss' modernisation of Three Sisters stumbled by relocating the action to a time and place where the metaphors no longer worked, but here she's been much more liberal in her adaptation, with much better results.

With mobile phones and the internet given prominence in this version, the idea that most of the teenagers don't know the mechanics of sex couldn't stay, but Reiss is for the most part successful in finding an alternative: These characters may know what goes where but that doesn't mean they're confident with their own bodies or each other's. Bradley Hall's Moritz is a particularly skittish and sweet one, equal parts excited by and afraid of the porn Melchior shows him. The catastrophically coy sexual advice Wendla (Aoife Duffin) gets from her mother (Ruby Thomas) is too big a plot point to ditch entirely, and Reiss' attempt to modernise it isn't quite convincing, but it's a good try. And the teachers' scapegoating of Melchior to soften OFSTED's wrath feels all too believably current.

Ben Kidd's production sets its stall from the off by moving the scene of Hans (Ekow Quartey) wanking to a painting of Venus to the very opening scene. Though much of what comes later has lost its power to shock, Wendla's desire to be beaten hasn't, and the production knows this and presents it starkly. Colin Richmond's set is a wasteland of a playground that gets increasingly cluttered with props as the children's minds get more swamped with adult concerns. And it's the setting for some great performances from this young cast.

The present-day setting makes Johnstone's job harder as it exposes Melchior's darkest moments all the more starkly - there's no ambiguity over whether or not he raped Wendla - so it's a credit that he manages to maintain a degree of audience sympathy, and make this the story of Melchior understanding his faults and growing up.

The response to the relationship between Hans and Ernst (Adam Welsh) is a mixed blessing: It's quite something to be in an audience of all ages who barely react to the two boys kissing. But Wedekind drops the scene in out of nowhere, and with the shock value gone it's now more starkly apparent how clumsily plotted it is. The conceit of the teenagers also playing the adults, often breaking out of character to comment in horror at what a parent's just said, has mixed results; and some of the cuts to the story feel a bit rough around the edges. But there's no denying the inventiveness both in adaptation and production, and the cast's energy and talent, all coming together to suggest Headlong won't be losing its unique identity now Rupert Goold's left the company.

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind in a version by Anya Reiss is booking until the 10th of May at Richmond Theatre; then continuing on tour to Liverpool, Newcastle and Derby.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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