Review: Spring Awakening ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 08, 2007

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, adapted and directed by Simon Stone. Design: set by Jolyon James, Mark Leonard Winter and Simon Stone; costume by Mel Page; sound by Rob Stewart; lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. With Angus Grant, Sara Gleeson, Katie-Jean Harding, Shelly Lauman, Rhys McConnochie, Beejan Olfat, Russ Pirie and Dylan Young. The Hayloft Project @ 45 Downstairs until June 17.

Even as a self-confessed stirrer of the chicken soup, it can be a shock to discover how heartily disliked you are. (In these times, of course, you also discover your allies). Yes, Ms Alison is licking her wounds after a salutary dust-up among the poetasters, which reminds me of nothing so much as Blake's proverb that "The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow". (Nothing against crows, of course, whom I consider to be birds of a particular charm.)

And yes, these storms in thimbles waste time that should have been better spent discussing art. Say, Frank Wedekind. Right at the moment, Wedekind feels like my kind of man. As the director Berthold Viertel (1885-1953) said of him: "With a satanic sneer as polite as an abyss and full of cold melancholy, he introduced us to the mysteries of reality which began where the views of the pacifying poets end."

Wedekind could never be remotely described as pacifying. He emerges from a line of radical German writing that can be traced through poets such as Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and playwrights like Jakob Lenz (1751-1792) and Georg Büchner (1813-1837). The plays of Büchner and Lenz, in contrast to the English writers of the time, express an unsettling and harsh modernity, and their impact is still a dynamic force in contemporary drama.

In turn, Wedekind's influence on modern theatre can't be overstated. Brecht, who was 20 when Wedekind died, was an obsessed admirer; he cited Wedekind's style as exemplary and even named his son after him. Wedekind's fierce attacks on the naturalism of his day made him an important forerunner of Expressionist theatre, and he was an inspiration for major European playwrights like Ödön von Horváth and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In the 1960s, writers such as Botho Strauss and Franz Xaver Kroetz emerged from the same tradition, and it continues to the present day in writers like Marius von Marienburg, whose play Eldorado was seen at the Malthouse last year.

This is a strand of modern theatre that is often overlooked in Australia, although it's a major influence in the plays of Daniel Keene. Excitingly, Ödön von Horváth's masterpiece Tales of the Vienna Woods is coming up at the Sydney Theatre Company later this year. And this week in Melbourne you have an exhilarating opportunity to see why Frank Wedekind continues to make waves. His classic Spring Awakening, which caused riots when it was first performed, remains confronting a hundred years after it was written, and The Hayloft Project, a new company stuffed to the gills with youthful talent, deserves high praise for bringing to the stage this very contemporary, intelligent and passionate interpretation.

Spring Awakening is set in a provincial town in 1890s Germany, and is a full-frontal attack on life-hating bourgeois hypocrisy and ignorance. For all the specifics of its time and place, its portrayal of the amoral innocence of adolescent sexuality in collision with repressive authority still resonates with surprising force. I suppose when the Catholic Church is threatening MPs with excommunication in Scotland and Australia, when US educationalists claim that chastity-led sex education is the way to go, when Amnesty International is condemned by church authorities for supporting abortions for raped women, the idea of "progress" in these issues comes under question. We are more like the 19th century than we care to admit.

Wedekind's references to abortion, homosexuality, rape, masturbation, sadism and so on made the play so scandalous that, although censored versions played long and successful seasons in Germany during his lifetime, the full play wasn't performed on the British stage until 1974, when it finally premiered in a translation by Edward Bond. This version is a new adaptation by director Simon Stone.

It is considerably cut back: the original cast of 37 characters is here rendered down to 13, performed by eight actors. To Stone's considerable credit, he has filleted out the bones of the work without losing its substance, and he preserves the complexity and force of Wedekind's poetry. Stone renovates the 19th century structure, giving it - except for a longueur towards the end - a very 21st century form. This version also preserves the comedy, which is at least as important as its poetry; this is, for all its sturm und drang, often a blackly funny play.

Spring Awakening concerns a group of fourteen year old boys and girls, all of them feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. Their confusions and, finally, their tragedies stem from the wilful ignorance in which they are kept by their parents and other authorities: the awakening of their bodies drives them to actions they do not understand, and that often bewilder and frighten them. In the case of Melchior (Angus Grant), his discovery of the facts of life - through observing dogs and fragmentary reading - leads to a comprehensive disillusion and atheism. His friend Moritz is terrified and ashamed even of his dreams, and for him sex is a horror that can only be escaped through an even more driven obsession with death.

The girls are equally trapped in their own ignorance. Wendla (Katie-Jean Harding) is caught between childhood and burgeoning womanhood; she is desperate to know where her sister's babies come from, but is kept in such ignorance by her mother's explanations that her innocence is impenetrable, even when she is raped. Her friend Martha (Sara Gleeson) is brutally beaten by her parents, whose sadism has unsettlingly sexual overtones; Wendla is excited by this and, in one of the more disturbing scenes in the play, demands that Melchior beat her. ("I've never been beaten my whole life!")

Wedekind's condemnation of the hypocrisy and repression that destroys or maims the burgeoning life in his young characters is comprehensive. But this is far from a nihilistic play: it's primarily a celebration of life's transient, uncertain joyousness. "Sometimes," says the doomed Wendla,"I'm so happy - there's so much joy and the sunshine is so bright! I want to go out and walk over the fields when it's dusk." Or as Rilow (Beejan Olfat) says, confessing his love for his schoolfriend Robel (Russ Pirie): "We musn't be sad! Perhaps when we look back in thirty years we'll jeer - but now, everything is beautiful..."

Simon Stone's use of the space at fortyfivedownstairs is dynamic and imaginative, and demonstrates that he has a gift for creating memorable theatrical image. A corner of the space is heavily curtained to enclose an intimate auditorium facing the corner of the room, with two dramatic arched windows on either wall and the audience on two sides of the stage. The set consists of about a dozen old-fashioned school-desks, which are manipulated to become hills, walls, doors and so on as required. Sensibly, there is no attempt to update the play to make it more "relevant", and Mel Page's costumes are neutrally 19th century, theatrical rather than accurate. Rob Stewart's sound design is deliberately up-front; sometimes this works, and sometimes it ceases to battle fruitfully with the dialogue and becomes merely overwhelming. But I'll forgive him everything for the stunning opening after interval.

It's worth noting that the bulk of this cast is drawn from recent Victorian College of the Arts graduates, and it's a reminder of how much the VCA is contributing to the theatre renaissance that is presently making Melbourne such an interesting place to be. The actors embrace the considerable challenges of this text with passion and discipline and, sometimes, forgiveable excess. It is, after all, a consummate play for young people, and aside from Rhys McConnochie, who is the Masked Man - the role Wedekind himself played - they are all young actors. There is no doubting their physical and emotional commitment: it is exciting simply to be in the same room. And they are fearless in approaching the extremes of eros and thanatos Wedekind works through his text (and in dealing with his complex language). I especially liked Angus Grant as Melchior and Katie-Jean Harding as Wendla; perhaps they best managed the tricky, even perverse, balance Wedekind attains between sexual desire and childish innocence.

In fact, much of this play's comedy, as well as its entire tragedy, exists in Wedekind's acute grasp of his characters' essential innocence. Its dramatic force comes from the clarity with which Wedekind exposes the damage that is caused by the projection of the adults' own fears and desires onto their children. It's there not only in Martha's savage beating for a shy expression of her womanhood in wearing a satin ribbon, but also in the condemnation of Melchior by the school authorities for writing about sex. In the loathing expressed by the adult world - the criminalisation of Melchior's questing intelligence, the disgust and shame invoked by female desire - is all the damage that has been wrought on those adults, all the fear of everything that has been repressed within their own bodies.

It's a fair bet that Freud saw Wedekind's plays; certainly, Wedekind's "tragedy of childhood" anticipates Freud's theorising of sexuality. But the true power of Spring Awakening is in how Wedekind opens up the mystery and strangeness of being alive, the "tormenting doubt of everything" which is, in the end, the only true key to joy. And, of course, to poetry.

Pictures of Spring Awakening: Top: (Left to right) Katie-Jean Harding, Russ Pirie, Beejan Olfat, Angus Grant, Shelly Lauman and Sara Gleeson. Bottom: Angus Grant, Katie-Jean Harding, Shelly Lauman and Sara Gleeson.


TimT said...

I'm off to see this tomorrow night. I studied Alban Berg's Lulu at Uni - for which this was, I think, the main inspiration.

Alison Croggon said...

I hope you like it, Tim. I think you will. Do report back!

Lulu was from another of Wedekind's plays (he wrote a couple of Lulu plays, which he called "sex tragedies"). It's got a lot in common with this one thematically, of course. I've never seen the opera. As you no doubt know, Berg also did an opera of Buchner's Woyzeck, of which Barrie Kosky did a wonderful AO production a few years back that I did see...

TimT said...

Oh, okay, getting my German expressionist plays mixed up!

Lulu is a fascinating opera. You've got to love a musical palindrome!

Anonymous said...


You may need to look up the word palindrome.

George Hunka said...

On my to-watch list is Pabst's Pandora's Box, his silent adaptation of the Lulu plays starring Louise Brooks. I saw it once, years ago; and though it has nothing to do with Spring Awakening, it's a fine piece of work.

TimT said...

Thanks ULUL, but the opera was actually conceived by Berg as a musical palindrome, although an imperfect one. Right in the middle of the piece, however, there is a kind of trumpet fanfare that is perfectly symmetrical: if you play it backwards, it is exactly the same as it is played forwards.


Wikipedia has an informative entry on palindrome that reminds us that the symmetry can occur in different way: by words, by letters, by numbers. It could be argued that the name 'Lulu' is symmetrical by syllable, although Wiki doesn't seem to define that.

Anonymous said...

While a musical adaptation runs in New York, which I found troubling in mostly the wrong ways, it's good to know that somebody somewhere is doing the original Wedekind play. (In fact, it was done in Dallas this spring too, by my old college.) Thanks for the report, Alison. This is, for now, my substitute for reading the play.

Ben.H said...

Berg's "Lulu" was in fact based on both of Wedekind's plays, "Earth Spirit" and "Pandora's Box", drastically compressed into one 3-act opera, so you see Lulu's rise from the gutter, and her fall.

As Timt points out, the opera is essentially a three-hour palindrome, dramatically and, to a large extent, musically. Each character and event in the first half has a corresponding counterpart in the second half, with the musical structure of the two halves mirroring each other. Critical scenes, like the central section about Lulu's trial and escape from prison, are exact palindromes. Her big aria before shooting Dr Schon, for example, is made up of nested palindromic musical phrases. This structure made it easier to complete the opera after Berg's death.

I also saw that Kosky production of "Wozzeck", which was pretty amazing, although I'm still not sure that the orchestra placement up the back was the best thing for the music.

Sorry about the spoliers in "Lulu".

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - I must say, what I could garner from the Broadway website didn't make me salivate...! I was very curious. Given that Wedekind was a cabaret star etc you could imagine some kind of musical adaptation, but it didn't look like my cup of tea.

Spoilers forgiven, BenH, we'll politely assume that everone has read the plays. :)

Anonymous said...

Not all of us have read Wedekind so thanks!

Currently in the middle of Death of a Salesman. I trust you won't ruin that for me too.

Anonymous said...

RMIT Union Arts did a production of Spring Awakening in 2005 which drew some parallels with the music and art of Kurt Cobain, Directed by Lynne Ellis.

Also Kumquat Theatre are doing a performannce piece in the Fringe called "Lulu Vs Jack The Ripper" which draws on the Wedekind text and some of the images/mythology which surround Louise Brooks, the silent film star. Should be pretty interesting.


Anonymous said...

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops understand the theme of the musical: that bad things happen when parents cease to fulfill their duties to their children and when humans give into and cannot repress their passions (in this musical, due to their parents inability to confront them about important issues). Seeing beyond the shocking issues of the play and being a sincerely devout Catholic myself, Spring Awakening is realistic and awakens people to what can happen should a parent not follow his or her vocation... also to the beauty of life and the need to protect it (the fact that Wendla's mother forces her to have the abortion when neither her nor Melchior desire it and that her spirit as well as Moritz' come back to keep Melchior from committing suicide)