I found Spring Awakening, a play I was not familiar with (and distinct from the much later musical adaptation), to be quite challenging. Its language is as dense as its thematic complexity and I had not expected the two and a half hour running time (plus intermission). It demanded a lot of its audience and certainly did of its actors. For a student production it is an audacious choice and there is much to admire about the result. However, some actors fared better than others with the incredibly difficult dialogue that at times was alliteration happy and a little florid to my modern ears. It also felt overwritten and could have used some judicious editing but perhaps that is more to do with present day attention spans more than a century on from its original conception. Having said all that, a great deal of thought and skill has gone into its staging.
The story itself, in essence, centres around two 14 year olds – Wendla (Beth Tremlett) and Moritz (Alexander Gerrans) - who are totally unprepared for their sexual awakening; and the impact a more self-aware Melchior (Sean Guastavino) has on both of their lives resulting in his own demise. Rape, abortion, suicide, depression, and the recriminations and judgment of the “powers-that-be”, whether parents, teachers, or the church, marked this as controversial in its day. It still packs a wallop even now and there is an undercurrent of very black humour throughout.
I must admit it began to coalesce into something far more cohesive for me in the second half when the ramifications of the ‘sins’ in the first two acts are ‘judged’. In many ways, as I remarked to the director afterwards, A Clockwork Orange reminded me of it in that regard. That Melchior is ‘put on trial’, rightly for his treatment of Wendla and unfairly for ‘educating’ Moritz, and his defiance in the face of withering condemnation is compelling. The play takes a surreal turn at the end when he is confronted by two figures in a graveyard having escaped the reformatory he was banished to by his parents. The identity of one of these is not in doubt; the other defiantly mysterious. It is left to the audience to decide what Melchior’s fate will ultimately be.
This is perhaps the best looking production I have seen at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs. It is beautifully lit with a clear distinction in lighting choices between the two halves as the realism of the first two acts gives way to the symbolism of the third. The stage is well presented with a ramp that the actors could clamber on, under, and through; a divan; and multitudes of paper strips depicting the winter forest very effectively. Actors also perched themselves along the side walls of the theatre to great effect. There was the appropriate use of ominous or evocative music as the scene demanded.
The costuming was excellent and I particularly liked the work of the ensemble to re-enact key events in the back stories of the principals or add texture and context. They were mostly clad in old fashioned white cotton attire that was evocative and a representation of ‘purity’.
To the performances and Tremlett inhabits Wendla with great spirit but her character is undone by a dangerous naivety fostered by her Mother (Kayla MacGillivray). The importance of knowledge, especially in regard to sexuality is a major thematic component. That Wendla is denied this knowledge makes her vulnerable and Tremlett plays this confusion well. That the ultimate arc is one of tragedy, the transformation from high-spirited innocent to being physically and emotionally crippled is well rendered. Guastavino plays Melchior with a calm resoluteness and sweet smile that belies the terrible acts his character commits especially against Wendla, the worst of which is harrowing and drew an audible exclamation from an audience member behind me. Gerrans battled gainfully with some truly difficult blocks of dialogue but admirably retained his composure though he was the least confident of the three with the language. His reappearance in the third act, however, was well done as it echoed the story Moritz had told (and discounted) earlier.
The support was very good with Jeremy Bunny impressive as Hansy; Gemma Middleton revelling in a long monologue as Ilse; Amelia Tuttleby particularly forceful as Melchior’s mother; and Savannah Wood playing varying roles as she brought what otherwise would have been straight verbal descriptions to vivid, at times, wailing life. Nathan Whitebrook gives a charismatic cameo at the end.
The acts of violence are well-handled and, as mentioned, director Teresa Izzard utilises the ensemble to give this real movement and energy as well as allowing all the actors to maximise the potential of the performance space. It is at times a difficult watch but a rewarding one as it prompts discussion and further thought which is always to be embraced.
Spring Awakening is directed by Teresa Izzard with a translation of the original German script (Frank Wedekind) by Jonathan Franzen, and stars Jeremy Bunny, Jarryd Dobson, Alexander Gerrans, Sean Guastavino, Kayla MacGillivray, Gemma Middleton, Aaron Smith, Terence Smith, Beth Tremlett, Amelia Tuttleby, Nathan Whitebrook and Savannah Wood. The show is at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs and runs until Saturday 7 March.