Spring Awakening [Novello Theatre]

Spring Awakening
Music and orchestrations by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, based on the play by Frank Wedekind

Wendla – Charlotte Wakefield
The Adult Women – Sian Thomas
Thea – Evelyn Hoskins
Anna – Natasha Barnes
Martha – Hayley Gallivan
Ilse – Lucy Barker
The Adult Men – Richard Cordery
Otto – Edd Judge
Hanschen – Jamie Blackley
Ernst – Harry McEntire
Georg – Josef Slovick
Moritz – Iwan Rheon
Melchior – Aneurin Barnard

Swings – Chris Barton, Natalie Garner, Mona Goodwin, Jamie Muscato, Gemma O’Duffy & Richard Southgate

The Band:
Nigel Lilley – Conductor & Keyboards
Huw Davies – Guitars
Don Richardson – Bass
Matthew Senior – Drums
Vicky Matthews – Cello
Charlie Brown – Violin & Guitar
Rachel Robson – Viola

Michael Mayer – Director
Bill T Jones – Choreographer
Christine Jones – Set Designer
Susan Hilferty – Costume Designer
Kevin Adams – Lighting Designer
Brian Ronan – Sound Designer
AnnMarie Milazzo – Vocal Arrangements
Simon Hale – String & Additional Orchestrations
Kate Waters – Fight Director

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 26 March, 2009
Venue: Novello Theatre, London

Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) was never far from controversy, be it with his family (he hit his father), his work and even right up to his death. His funeral turned into a knockabout black farce worthy of Joe Orton, his modern-day theatrical counterpart. After working for the Swiss soup firm of Maggi, Wedekind turned to cabaret, theatre and circus to find a means of self-expression. His satirical writings saw him being imprisoned for nine months, although it was thanks to him that German theatre cabaret flourished as a major art form.

When he became dramaturg at the Munich Schauspielhaus he began writing plays. From the outset his writing presented problems. “Spring Awakening” (“Frühlings Erwachen”) was his first in 1891, although it was not premiered until 1906 because it openly dealt with sexuality and puberty among school children. “Earth Spirit” (“Erdgeist”, 1895) and “Pandora’s Box” (“Der Buchse der Pandora”, 1904), a single play but in two halves, is about a young woman, a dancer who has sex with wealthy men in order to promote herself into German society, but who finally dies in poverty. It became a famous film by director Pabst starring Louise Brooks and a celebrated opera by Alban Berg (“Lulu”). “Franziska” (1910) is about a girl who sells her soul to the devil in order to find out what it is like to be a man.

Wedekind’s choice of subject matter was often unpalatable and he dealt with matters that most of German society at the time would rather have forgotten. “Spring Awakening”, sub-titled ‘A children’s tragedy’, covers homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, rape and suicide. “Pandora’s Box” dealt with prostitution, lesbianism and a meeting with Jack the Ripper. Many found his subject-matter so unacceptable that “Spring Awakening” only had a single performance in New York in 1917. It appeared off-Broadway in 1955 and in the UK the National Theatre tried to stage it in the 1960s but abandoned it because of censorship cuts, one of which was that the boys’ collective masturbation scene should be replaced by a coin-tossing game (sic!). The National Theatre returned to it in 1974 in a translation by Edward Bond at The Old Vic, directed by Bill Bryden with Beryl Reid in the cast.

The musical version will give Wedekind’s play the widest audience it has ever had. It will also bring a young audience into the theatre, an audience that might otherwise not go. Starting off-Broadway in New York in 2006, it moved to Broadway for nearly 900 performances, cleaned up at the Tony Awards and is now opening all around the world. The present production started at the Lyric Hammersmith and has now transferred to the West End where it is destined for a long run.

“Spring Awakening” is about young people, schoolchildren who are trying to grow up, who want to know the facts of life, but are confused by sex and their sexuality and yet are hampered in gaining any self-knowledge by the adults around them – parents, teachers, doctors, abortionists and other authority figures unwilling to help them in their progress from child to adulthood.

Although the play is still set in nineteenth-century Germany, the problem of what to tell the children and when is still with us today. Fourteen-year-old Wendla begs her mother to tell her about how babies are born but is fobbed off with a story about having to love her husband with all her heart. When she eventually becomes pregnant, Wendla is still unaware of her condition and through ignorance cannot believe it.

Melchior, also fourteen, who becomes Wendla’s lover, does know about sexual reproduction and writes it all down for his friend Moritz, who is frightened by his own sexual stirrings and lack of love from his parents and no understanding from his teachers. In his cross-section of school life, Wedekind also presents two boys who have a homosexual relationship (Hanschen and Ernst) and another, Georg, who has fantasies about sleeping with his female piano-teacher. Martha is a schoolgirl who is abused by her father and ignored by her mother. Wedekind’s world is a cruel place, a hell on earth.

He does, however, deal in universal problems which perennially beset children, the cause usually being adults too embarrassed or uncaring to bother with them. In this respect Wedekind was way ahead of his time, so it is no wonder that Germany found it hard to stomach the playwright’s message. Children will always rebel against their parents and their teachers – it’s what they do – but it is still refreshing to be reminded of this age-old problem in a play that still roars with life and passion. The addition of a rock-music score may not seem necessary but in fact it is a way of letting the kids performing release their frustrations through song. Young rebels have long turned to the music of the day to vent their ideas.

If Duncan Sheik’s folk-influenced rock-score is not that memorable, while it is being performed it does release the pressure of overheated events. For instance Wendla and the other girls deliver an impassioned plea in ‘Mama who bore me’, berating their unfeeling mother figures; Moritz and the boys sum up their miserable lives in ‘The bitch of living’ while later on Moritz contemplates suicide in ‘Don’t do sadness’. Perhaps the song that really gets to heart of the children’s tragedy is ‘Totally F***ed’, which Melchior and the entire company perform with total abandon, much to the joy of the audience.

Michael Mayer’s strong production fields some excellent performances from its young company of actors, many of whom are making their professional theatre debuts. Aneurin Barnard as Melchior seems destined for stardom, as Iwan Rheon as Moritz, Charlotte Wakefield as Wendla, Jos Slovick as Georg, Jamie Blackley as Hanschen, Harry McEntire as Ernst and Edd Judge as Otto. Forming a terrific ensemble, they are all superb musical performers and movers and make the best of Bill T. Jones’s slick choreography. As the authority figures Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery are frighteningly real and could have come straight out of Dickens. Christine Jones’s designs and Kevin Adams’s lighting evoke the hothouse atmosphere of burgeoning sexuality.

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