“The whole fucking adult world is governed by dicks and pussies,” says Melchior Gabor in Anya Reiss’ new version of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, before later declaring to his teachers that “You created this world. And you punish me for living in it?”
These observations are representative of the kind of banal, offhand and ostensibly meaningless remarks made by teenagers throughout history, but they hold within them a deep, perhaps unintended truth; that in our teenage years of angst and exploration, we may be able to see the world more clearly than our elders. It’s a theme perfectly and astutely captured by Reiss’ new version of Wedekind’s 1891 classic, which manages to take the messy, challenging play and wrench it into something recognisable and current, accusing twenty-first century British attitudes to sex and adolescents of being positively Victorian.
The action here has all been transposed to a contemporary setting (complete with a recognisably woeful curriculum and distant parents), but none of the nuances and complexities of Wedekind’s original are lost in translation; indeed, through the quietly explosive framing device of having these teens staging their story in their own words, Reiss finds a way of exploring themes of alienation and sexual experimentation in even more depth. The adult characters – mothers, fathers, teachers – are all represented by the adolescent characters, forcing us to see the world through the eyes of those younger than ourselves without ever seeming patronising or sentimental. They constantly have to readjust their opinions of one another, configuring and reconfiguring adult relationships and emotions.
Everything is brilliantly shifted to make sense to modern eyes and ears; pornographic books become pornographic websites, a suicide note is a viral video and a hayloft turns into a metal cabin bed. It could run the risk of going too far, of shoehorning in modern references in a way which seems gimmicky, but like the characters themselves, Ben Kidd’s production teeters delicately on the line between childhood and adulthood. It’s a risky balancing act, but one which pays off enormously as form mirrors content and vice versa, forcing an examination of both sides of a tricky debate.
This production of Spring Awakening – co-produced by Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Nuffield Theatre- is also hugely entertaining and – perhaps surprisingly – funny. Roger Allam’s voice provides some exquisite moments of masturbatory mirth, and discussions of clothing between girldfriends verge on the ridiculous. The cast, too, oscillate between funny and furious, with scenes between Aoife Duffin’s Wendla and Ruby Thomas’ take on Mrs Bergman extracting laughs one moment and gasps the next. So, too, is there brilliant chemistry between Bradley Hall’s troubled Moritz and Oliver Johnstone’s cocksure Melchior, as they discuss with one another the ethics of porn. All of these characters have a façade, but beneath the brash exterior there is always the timeless, troubled confusions of adolescence.
Kidd’s direction copes with the fragmentary nature of Wedekind’s text with ease, switching fluidly between scenes and finding many moments of visual intrigue. Colin Richmond’s stark, stripped back design moves from children’s playground to beds and school chairs – the sites of the teenage battlefield – though the swings remain ever-present and unmoveable. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and George Dennis’ sound design also both sit with exhilarating precariousness on the fence between meaningful and meaningless.
Through all this, we are never allowed to forget the urgent and necessary themes of sexuality and exploration Spring Awakening explores, and are urged to ask with whom blame and responsibility lies. Wedekind’s shift to questions of morality in the play’s final moments here take on a semi-Brechtian dialectic, as nobody is left off the hook. In this startling, almost bleak image of youth in the twenty-first century, every single one of us is to blame.