Frank Wedekind's controversial masterpiece (Spring Awakening) adapted into a new up to date version by Anya Reiss and currently on tour through a Headlong and West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield co-production arrived on the Derby Theatre stage last night. As the audience settled themselves into their comfy seats the teens were already on the stage playground swinging on the swings, dragging a bed on stage and scuffling among themselves and appearing and re-appearing through a backdrop of strong see through rubberised curtains. The sort you may find in an abattoir.
An announcement should have been made. "Watch out audience, you are in for a very bumpy ride!" But no - just a sudden switch to a pitch black stage and a cultured male voice over extolling the virtues of a Venus figure in a painting. All starts well - the figure is described artistically then the details centre on the woman's chest area and the erect nipples and her full thighs and the pudendum and how wet her vagina appears to be und so weiter. A spotlight pierces the darkness to illuminate a boy enthusiastically masturbating on a toilet to the ever increasingly audio erotic description of the Venus figure. Bang! The play begins!
In an incredibly confidently handled piece the Headlong ensemble explore the themes of teenage suicide, a need for clarification on sexual matters from adults, rape, teenage pregnancy, gay love, love in general, and the desperate need to be accepted as a person as a teenager whilst getting little support from adults who seem ill equipped to offer advice that is practically or emotionally helpful. The young cast play not only the teenagers themselves but also adults who populate the piece as parents or teachers or advisors and each transition is handled superlatively well. The characters attempt to support each other with matters sexual through internet links to very violent porn extracts and misleading information causing great emotional confusion and very sudden violent reactions between them. Many of the actions are accompanied by sound effects and energetic modern pop music.
The play is on an open stage that allows the audience to see the actors entering from the wings and also allows for major props such as a bunk bed on which an horrific rape scene takes place to be pushed on and secured in place. A permanent feature is a set of two swings that allow the actors to use them to a variety of theatrical advantages. The whole of Spring Awakening is a moving macabre hymn to teenagers seeking out sexual information from a variety of sources and being condemned for it by their elders.
There is fantastic usage of projection and this is particularly alarming with a girl talking to a young man via a laptop about being pissed and 'totally out of it' for three days and having had no real idea where she has been expect that her friend has a good mate who is a great photographer and wants to take pictures of her. The potential danger of her position is alarming and the video images projected on to the rubberised curtain are of an exhausted and desperate young woman who is excited at her teenage freedoms and also terrified by them. Those comfy theatre seats become less and less so throughout the story telling of this play. Then the character Moritz Stiefel hangs himself and all hell breaks loose. Questions of life versus death filtrate and antagonise the text. In this show there is no interval to hide in and it is all the better for it.
This all sounds very bleak and yet there are some very funny moments in the play as Wedekind originally intended and which he defended his script in 1911. Against his overtly political readings he insisted that he'd intended the play to be a 'sunny image of life' in which all but one of the scenes he'd tried to exploit a 'freewheeling humour' for all the laughs that he could get and this is quite shocking considering how amoral the play's action is. We have Wendla Bergmann and Moritz Stiefel pre-occupied with death and the sadness lies in how lovable both these characters are that decide to take their own lives, The humour is very dark but still funny nether-the-less and the multi-media effects are breath-taking as is the quality of the acting. Ekow Quartey in his dual role as Hans and the teacher Mr Sonnenstisch is especially impressive for the maturity of his interpretation of the teacher role.
Director Benn Kidd has done a fantastic job of bringing the play to the modern stage through this version by Anya Reiss and the ensemble of eight young actors (Aoife Duffin, Claudia Grant, Bradley Hall, Oliver Johnstone, Ekow Quartey, Ruby Thomas,Adam Welsh and Daisy Whalley) deserve all the accolades possible for their performances and bravery overall in such a thrilling yet hard hitting play. Another fine example too of how video and modern media can be used for brilliantly dramatic effect in combination with the acting and take a super play to the realms of being utterly compelling and a challenging but ultimately rewarding theatrical journey.
Spring Awakening is at Derby Theatre until Saturday 31st May. (touring)