Steven Sater – book & lyrics
Duncan Sheik – music
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Wendla – Charlotte Wakefield
Moritz – Iwan Rheon
Melchior – Aneurin Barnard
Ilse – Lucy Barker
Anna – Natasha Barnes
Ernst – Harry McEntire
Georg – Jos Slovick
Hanschen – Jamie Blackley
Martha – Hayley Gallivan
Otto – Edd Judge
Thea – Evelyn Hoskins
Woman – Sian Thomas
Man – Richard Cordery
Swings – Chris Barton, Natalie Garner, Mona Goodwin, Jamie Muscato, Gemma O’Duffy & Richard Southgate
Michael Mayer – Director
Lucy Skilbeck – Associate director
Bill T. Jones – Choreography
JoAnn M. Hunter – Associate choreographer
Christine Jones & Tim McQuillen-Wright – Set
Susan Hilferty & Margie Bailey – Costumes
Kevin Adams & Alistair Grant – Lighting
Brian Ronan & Tony Gayle – Sound
Nigel Lilley – Musical director
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 3 February, 2009
Venue: Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, London W6
As the easterlies brought snow and standstill to the whole of London, at the Lyric Hammersmith an equally strong force was blasting in from Broadway, to blow the cobwebs from the moribund musical edifices resident in the West End. At the behest of the Lyric’s outgoing director David Farr, the original production team of Broadway smash “Spring Awakening” came over to Hammersmith to recreate the show with an all-British cast of virtual unknowns. A year’s search for talented 16- to 24-year-olds later and the show opened on Tuesday 3 February 2009.
And what a show! Blessed by its brilliant young cast, complete with token adult actors Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery, who play all the (mostly repressive) adult parts, “Spring Awakening” grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. It’s a feast for the eye and the mind, with tremendously vital choreography by the great Bill T. Jones and – for a rock musical – a surprisingly lyrical and often-subtle score by Duncan Sheik, played by a small combo of just seven at the back of the stage.
But for once the actual nature of the show is as brilliant as the production. It’s based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama “Frühlijngs Erwachen”, which took 15 years to reach the stage (and then heavily cut), while being banned in various countries, including Britain. Its subject is puberty and how the situation for 14-year-olds, who are battling their own internal personal upheaval, is made worse in the face of restrictive, brutal and self-deluding adults, either at school or home. Played in period costume – save for the boys’ extreme haircuts and some footwear – it is the effect of the rock music that heightens the brilliance of the show. Taking out hand-microphones from their jackets or dresses, when the kids break into song they sing as if in the 21st-century, but reflecting the moods expressed in Wedekind’s original.
Take the two prime examples: ‘The Bitch of Living’ – as the boys break out of school and pogo around the stage, Richard Cordery’s stick-wielding teacher standing mutely on – and ‘Totally F***ed’ – Melchior’s all-too modern revolt when charged with his elders that his detailed essay (with explicit diagrams) about sex was the root cause of Moritz’s suicide, knowing that whatever he says his fate is sealed. Here the explosion of music and dance is both cathartic and energetic, doing what musicals need to do (and so rarely do in their modern bland incarnation): stop the show.
It doesn’t matter that it might have been impossible for Wedekind’s original children to conceive of such revolt (as some criticism of the show would have it). The creators of the show state their goal is for “a completely different take on those characters”. The conceit doesn’t lessen the tragedy of Wedekind’s original. Indeed, I’d argue the opposite. It heightens the tragedy, as the problems facing teenagers now have not diminished. The inability for many modern societies to break through prejudice and dogma to talk honestly about sex makes for similarly oppressive times for kids to grow up in. Unplanned pregnancy, suicide, the failure of the school and reform system and – for many countries, if not our own – the dangers of back-street abortions have not diminished. There remains an all-too-salutary message at the end and Wedekind’s diatribe is not weakened.
The musical follows the play pretty faithfully in its scenes of bodily and sensual exploration – from masturbating to sex – as well as the perhaps more squeamish interest in physical hurt. In ‘The Word of Your Body’ the lyric goes something like “I want to wound you, I want to be your wound / I want to bruise you, I want to be your bruise” – perhaps the least successful of Sater’s words. It comes as Wendla pleads Melchior to beat her with a stick and certainly throws into relief the problem of child-beating described by runaway Ilse, an extension of the parental repression as rife in Wedekind’s day as – regrettably – now, and all credit to the show for not shying away from the subject.
No taboo is left untouched, including burgeoning homosexual tenderness between Hanschen (he of the masturbating chorus) and Ernst. However, most importantly is Moritz’s descent to depression and suicide, which even Ilse – now with a community of Bohemians and fallen into prostitution – can’t stem with her innocent offer of friendship. Iwan Rheon’s Moritz with his wild hair transferred into an Eraserhead-style tall flat top during the interval, embodies his character’s angst and self-hate, railing against the world in ‘Don’t Do Sadness’.
The tragedy quickens from his suicide. Wendla’s mother realises her daughter is pregnant and takes her to a back-street abortionist. Sympathetically played by Charlotte Wakefield, Wendla’s demise is even more tragic as we only learn about it obliquely, while Aneurin Barnard’s vibrant Melchior escapes from his reform school only – Romeo-like – to find his lover in the grave, as well as his best friend. Should he choose death? One can only hope, like Irwin Welsh’s Renton in “Trainspotting”, he chooses life and tries to change the system.
With a quiet start (‘Mama who bore me’) and a subdued end (‘The Song of the Purple Summer’), “Spring Awakening” has an arch-like structure, that perhaps takes too long to set the scene and speeds too much to the denouement, but that doesn’t alter the sheer brilliance of the conceit, the choreography and the coruscating power of the staging. And the young cast is, quite simply, the best possible indication that Britain has talent (and there wasn’t a reality television show needed to prove it).
Talking of television, it’s worth a comparison with Channel 4’s “Skins” – the (presumably in their 20s) writers’ wet-dream about how cool it might be to be a teenager at school today, but full of fantasy. For all its highly-produced gloss on teenage problems, “Skins” is completely obliterated by Spring Awakening, where the emotions and reactions are far more grounded in tragic reality, and therefore are so much more telling.
“Spring Awakening” runs at the Lyric Hammersmith to 14 March and, hopefully, in the West End soon after that. For those that want to be close to the action, there is stage-side seating, amongst the additional chorus members of the cast and it wouldn’t surprise me if people return and feel empowered to join in.