Anya Reiss has adapted and updated Frank Wedekind’s play, written in the early 1890s, for the Skins generation. Shocking in its day, Wedekind’s play features scenes of rape, abortion, and suicide, and while taboos have obviously shifted in the past century, the play still has the capacity to make an audience gasp. Reiss’ update capatilises on that shock factor, opening with a scene of a young man sat on the toilet in an art gallery, frantically masturbating.
One of Reiss and director Ben Kidd’s, most interesting changes to the material is to submerge the young characters in a world of online pornography, Skype calls and cyber-bullying. Reiss goes much further here than in her modern retelling of The Seagull, firmly rooting Spring Awakening in a recognisable contemporary world. Reiss ably demonstrates how Wedekind’s play of adolescent upheaval is still relevant today: the play explores the complicated relationships between parents and their children, peer pressure, and sexual awakenings, while also examining the impact of a new set of pressures brought by the internet and the smartphone, a world of lives lived online.
The play focuses on the central trio of teenagers, Wendla, Melchoir and Moritz. Wendla is a young, naive girl with a crush on the nihilistic Melchoir; his best friend Moritz meanwhile is struggling to deal with society’s expectations and pressures, both academic and sexual. Reiss and Kidd have the young characters take on the adult roles too, playing their own parents and teachers, donning suit jackets and high heels over their school uniforms, to draw attention both to the gulf between the generations but also the overlap, the mutual confusion. The adult characters are kids playing dress up, equally at sea in a shifting world.
Aoife Duffin is particularly heart-rendering as Wendla, her outward confidence betraying an air of vulnerability, and she creates a convincing chemistry with the excellent Oliver Johnstone as Melchoir. Their flirtation is sinister at times, dark and nasty (“I want you to hit me” begs Wendla at one point) and yet there is a connection between them; the scene leading up to Wendla’s eventual rape is even more horribly disturbing as a result. Bradley Hall also puts in a strong performance as the angst-ridden Moritz and Daisy Whalley is memorable in her small but key scene as the traumatised Ilse, mascara bleeding down her cheeks as she relates a violent sexual encounter over Skype, her face projected in close up.
This scene is characteristic of Kidd’s distinctive visual approach: video is projected on industrial plastic sheeting at the back of the stage, there are live Skype feeds, and an excitingly diverse and well deployed soundtrack, the music ranging from Rilo Kiley to Jay Z. Some of Reiss’ updates are incredibly effective: the masked man who offers Melchoir a shot at redemption towards the end of the play is replaced by a group of anonymous internet commentators; Moritz’s suicide is filmed and streamed on YouTube, while the creep of cyber-bullying and the saturating quality of internet pornography and social media are also explored in inventive and engaging ways.
It’s a breathlessly paced piece – running at just over 90 minutes with no interval – and character development sometimes suffers as a result. The sheer scale of Moritz’s desperation is never fully flagged, so his eventual suicide feels jarring, while the storyline of Hanschen and Ernst, the two male students discovering their homosexuality, feels a bit crammed in, an afterthought. Wendla’s strange mix of worldliness and innocence also feels too hurriedly sketched; it’s hard to believe, given the level of sexual imagery which surrounds these characters, she could be so ignorant about the consequences of sex, even sunk deep in denial.
Despite the sense of bleakness and despair which permeates the play, Reiss’ includes plenty of humour – there are a lot of wank gags – and the visual barrage, the sheer adolescent energy on display, is exhilarating and invigorating.