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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol

 

Live review:

SPRING AWAKENING @ PEGG THEATRE

Jemima Stafford

“Spring Awakening”, which opened on 6/12/19 at the Pegg Theatre, is an adaptation of the once-scandalous 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the German playwright best known as the author of the source material for the Alban Berg opera “Lulu”. Wedekind’s meditation on the awkward and fragmented teenage years that are seminal in our formation of self is given a modern-day twist in this adaptation scripted by Anya Reiss and directed by Alex Jenn and Anna Fenton-Garvey. This modernisation opens the floodgates to a torrent of new and disturbing ways in which innocence and youth are dismantled, as Wedekind’s critique of a sexually oppressive culture in the 19th century finds new meaning. Here we find both parents and institutions alike failing to shepherd the children safely through their delicate years of sexual exploration in a technology-saturated society.

The plot centres around a group of school friends, and one of the central figures is Melchior Gabor (Yoav Besorai). Melchior starts the play as a lively and likeable 14-year old clumsily trying to reach out to others as he fights against the allures of nihilism and develops his own understandings of what is right and wrong. We watch as the influences of porn culture, the sexual fantasies of Wendla (Niamh Fraser) and the position of power he is given by his younger and less experienced friends places him in the role of male aggressor. His downward spiral is exacerbated by the callous treatment of the school in response to the tragic suicide of his best friend. We never lose our ability to empathise with Melchior, as he fights to find his individuality in the midst of trauma and confusion. Wendla’s attempt to reconcile her rape at the hands of Melchior with her understanding of the world as presented to her by those around her, and Moritz’s (Will Bryant) self- deprecation and isolation are hard-hitting portrayals of teenage loneliness.

Hans (Joe Samrai) and Ernst’s (Angus Cooper) relationship towards the end of the play was a particular highlight; the chemistry between the two made for a convincing portrayal of young lovers haunted by the fear that their future is indeterminable and their perceptions of each other are subject to change. These instances where love and innocence fused before being washed away in the darker, fable-esque tide of confusion and fear were more beautiful for the unspoken truth of their impermanence.

Unfortunately, the mammoth task of presenting such an assortment of anxieties and struggles within the mess of those teenage doldrums somewhat desensitises the viewer. Acknowledging the wide-ranging, complex nature of those issues inevitably risked turning the characters into their representational problems; I thought Moritz deserved more time earlier in the play to develop. However, the entire production was impressively executed, and the multi-media set-up was vibrant and loud, with the staging reminiscent of Dear Ivan Hansen. A scrolling screen was on display and ran alongside the main storyline. A moment where this was particularly powerful was when Melchior asked Siri to define what is right and wrong. The inundation of definitions that we hear drives the point that although technology may have made our lives more convenient, its ability to facilitate any greater meaning is questionable; in fact, as the cleverly done Skype call between Ilse (Eilis Rooney) and Moritz demonstrated, it contributes to our own self-effacement as we attempt to create confused and false public images.

Spring Awakening is a probing, oftentimes frightening, and disruptive presentation of the realisation we all come to in our teenage years that the world is a daunting place. Among the items featured on this list of pubescent horrors are rape, suicide, abuse and abortion, amongst others. And as much as we may “look back on this in 30 years’ time” and see the beauty in the tumult, there is no romanticising the fact that some never will. Alex Jenn and Anna Fenton-Garvey have managed to capture the alienation of growing up, and what stayed with me was not only a sense of painful weltschmerz but also the truth that it is the love you are shown during those developmental years that defines you later on.

Illustration courtesy of Oskar House.