Many plays are often described as ‘powerful’. While I’m not a fan of such generalisations, I really can’t think of a better word to describe Spring Awakening, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly theatre. It’s a passionate and compelling journey through the life of a group of teenagers. At times both profoundly disturbing and moving, it is by all accounts a chronicle of adolescence that, in its form as a musical, many will be able to relate to.
The play, set in the 1890s, follows the story of Wendla (Ellie Lowenthal), a 14-year-old girl unripe for love, Melchior (Jack Remmington), the youthful rebel who perpetually questions institutional authority, and Moritz (Niall Docherty), Melchior’s inexpert and naïve friend. As teenagers, they all find themselves at that stage of life where so many things are discoveries, but somehow one still thinks one knows everything.
Spring Awakening does not shy away from difficult issues such as rape, abortion, and suicide. Its unrelenting confrontation of such topics made its original version, written by Frank Wedekind in 1891, particularly controversial. It was originally banned on the grounds of being pornographic, and was only performed in highly censored form in 1906. The main point of reference for the O’Reilly production, however, is the 2006 Broadway musical version. In the musical, the emphasis on problematic issues differs significantly from the play: for example, during her rape, the original has Wendla pleading Melchior to stop, and she is later traumatised by the experience. In the musical the issue of consent is left much more ambiguous. This is what we see in this production, even though Wendla’s inner struggle, and Melchior’s combination of affection and violence, could perhaps have been emphasised a bit more. The production nevertheless has the merit of sensitively bringing to the stage issues that are as topical today as they were when Wedekind penned the play.
It features all the classic ‘rites of passage’ of adolescence: school difficulties, sex (‘Can’t you hear the word of your body?’ various characters sing), emotional education (‘I don’t do sadness’ says Moritz), gender identity, pregnancy, death. The picture could not be a more comprehensive one. And yet the result is far from being uninteresting or (worse) didactic: important issues are raised, but very few answers are given. This is in itself emblematic of adolescence, where questions arise at a much faster pace than their answers. The exploration of ‘the spring of life’ is careful and relevant, presenting teenagers bursting with vital energy, which they only need to channel in a productive way. When this does not happen, characters suffer the consequences of their actions. Adolescence is indeed a double-edged sword: a moment of discovery and excitement, but also of fragility and fear.
Included in the picture is the role of adults, played by Alice Moore and Josh Blunsden. Blunsden is particularly convincing in his role of the generic ‘adult male’ (teacher, father, doctor, priest), as seen through the eyes of the teenagers. The grown-up world is a scary one, populated by mysteries that are both attractive and horrifying. Stern and harsh as they can be, adults are not immune to grief, as the teacher’s breakdown at the death of Moritz shows. Adults are just teenagers who have been shaped by time.
Moreover as a musical, Spring Awakening shone for the quality of the singing: Remmington and Docherty in particular stood out among the talented cast and ensemble, but the choruses of boys and girls also give solid performances. Especially entertaining (and utterly brilliant from a Classicist’s perspective) was Remmington’s solo accompanied by the chorus of boys giving a musical recitation of the Aeneid in Latin. Moreover, the actors moved with fluidity and energy on stage, complementing the songs with simple but precise choreographies. In musicals, dancing can often seem decorative to the point of being superfluous, but here it bears a sensual dimension, going hand in hand with the themes of the play. All the more praiseworthy is the fact that the cast didn’t stop acting for a moment, giving the whole play an impression of slick continuity.
The set could perhaps have benefitted from a few tweaks. Understandably, it had to be variegated due the diversity of locations the play embraces, but it still appeared a bit dull and approximate. Similarly, a bit more attention could have been devoted to costumes, which were generally appropriate, but with one actress too many in dungarees (in the 1890s?). As pedantic as this may seem, I felt that the vagueness of both set and costumes was something of a distraction, and didn’t help the audience to set the events in a specific time frame. While characters’ responses to the events (such as rape) seemed contemporary, other factors pointed to a late 19th century attitude. If such ambiguity was deliberate, then perhaps this was not made clear enough.
Overall, Spring Awakening proved an entertaining and thought-provoking performance. It threw me back to adolescence, reminding me why I’m glad it’s over, but at the same time depicting the outburst of life and passions which only belong to that season of life. For this reason, I think the play cannot but be described as ‘powerful’.
‘Spring Awakening’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly theatre until Saturday 21st November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit the O’Reilly website.