Seminal work still has a voice

Awakening: Melchior Gabor (David McLaughlin) and Wendla Bergman (Gabrielle Dempsey)

Spring Awakening

Icarus Theatre Collective

The Theatre, Chipping Norton

*****

A COLLEAGUE made a rather incisive comment to me about Spring Awakening. ‘I suppose plays that are so obviously ahead of their time,' he observed, ‘are often the quickest to date.'

It never occurred to me that this might be true of Frank Wedekind's wonderful, seminal play (1890-91; not staged till 1906, in Berlin by Max Reinhardt) about cramped youth growing up in Bismarckian Germany but feeling its way to a fin-de-siècle or late 20th century morality: a morality that found a place for natural instincts and common sense.

I wonder if the issue is about age. In Max Lewendel's beautifully observed, trenchant staging, Icarus Theatre Collective's cast of eight (Icarus are currently touring Spring Awakening alongside Romeo and Juliet) were, with one exception, 20-something youngsters, acting the role of what appeared like 16 or 17 year olds.

All the personae are victims. The overlarded word abuse might be apt in some cases. But their main abuser is life itself. Wedekind has them younger. The pregnant Wendla (Gabrielle Dempsey), doomed victim of an unseen abortionist (whose ominous knock on the Bergman's front door is a final turning point) is 13 turning 14; the philosophical Melchior, through the prism of whose intellect the play's events are largely viewed, catechised and summed up, is 14 too; and so, presumably, is his screwed-up, still huggably naîve young friend Moritz (exquisitely personified by Christopher Smart).

Hans (Johannes or Hänchen, Kaiden Dubois), sampling the  delights of masturbation over an erotic postcard, and embarking on gay first infatuation with his much-kissed chum Ernst (Smart again, in some well-judged if ironic doubling of roles) is a classmate of both. An attractive performer in more senses than one, Dubois is Icarus's Romeo. Worth seeking out.

Wendla (Gabrielle Dempsey, exquisitely child-like): Spring, before winter descends

This is sex for Year Nines. Perhaps, to recover the impact it had before the First World War, this play needs to be acted by children (several youth theatre productions have been attempted recently). Certainly that would be possible on radio. Wedekind's criminals are the grown ups, presented in a slightly too Expressionist Gymnasium staff meeting where adulthood is not examined but sneered at and pelted: as with, say, Peter Maxwell Davies's like-minded opera Resurrection (written, as it happens, for Germany), the target is authority of any kind.

Nietzsche used to parody those same  hide-bound, rule-enervated school institutions of his day (parallels with our own post-Baker or Govian curriculum interference); and likewise Remarque at the start of All Quiet on the Western Front; but Nietzsche recognised the huge good they did, too. Life serves up a mixed bag.

Max Lewendel's production is played out on an imaginative dark set (no separate design acknowledgment) in which what looks like an everted Golgotha cross – apt for Wendla and Moritz yet a symbol for all of them - though it could be a smashed-up railway track that is just waiting for a collision.

Various bits of clutter are pulled on and off, the cast being dab hands at scene-shifting. It is not an impeccable staging (whenever was there one, of anything?). Yet it is next best: nigh-on faultless.

This cast is quite superb. I looked for more definition, more structured individuality, more salient details of characterisation, from David McLaughlin's Melchior. Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio – a not wholly dissimilar role – McLaughlin is a bit like Jamie Parker's Scripps in Alan Bennett's The History Boys: the shrewd observer, standing somewhat apart from events; yet integral too.

But because Melchior is in a sense ageless, his reading is in many senses right. He speaks well, does irony as well as he does kindness and empathy, and his sheer strength of character – albeit wobbly at the crucial moments, as at the end where he is torn between a luring corpse (‘kill yourself too') and a mystery (‘become an adult; it is at least an option') – shines through.

Georgina Periam (Frau Gabor), one of the cast's many triumphs

One of the least satisfactory scenes comes just before the interval. It is the rape of Wendla, who a few minutes earlier has been reaching out, in a sado-masochistic exchange that stands for sexual come-on, to urge Melchior to beat her. It is snatched – such things are – but on a cramped bunk bed which is maybe not a bed, also a bit botched; and set just a little too far stage left. Does she want it? No, she says. But what does she mean?

True, the rape – with its consequences - is meant to be Spring Awakening's biggest puzzle. Does he, or doesn't he? And is it really a defilement? Here, he goes to it with a will. By the end, when confronted by the Strindberg-like Masked Man (Zachary Holton) originally played by Wedekind himself, and having experienced the nasty bullying and collective onanistic romps of a Reformatory, Melchior is still trying to work out the morality in his head.

As the survivor, he will take this confusion into the future. As an adult, he will most likely resolve and outgrow it; but will do so by recognising that some things in life are too finely balanced to be soluble. Scepticism will have to cohabit with and/or make concessions to decision-making.

Zachary Holton's presence – first as angry parent, then as mysterious hovering presence – is a slightly awkward one. One fluffed entry didn't help, but he moves awkwardly, speaks admirably and (here) impresses little. The difference in age seems awkward: the role needs no antiquated sage, but a strange, philosophic kind of postgrad.

But I'd like to see him as Capulet on tour – a role that would fit him perfectly. A bit like the Bishop of London, he could also make a superb Friar Laurence. A veteran of the Scottish Play - Duncan, Siward, Old Man, he is cut out for all three. But the role that would test him, and that someone owes him, is the Porter.

One of the girls – Perlam or Barrett (or a Mercutio type: Nicol Williamson, say) might have characterised the Masked Man, this kind of Ibsen escapee, far better. For the remainder of the cast are, one and all, magnificent.

Gemma Barrett's Frau Bergman (Wendla's all-too-proper, if put-upon mum, a kind of domestic cipher) caught my eye and ear from the start: wonderfully, arrestingly spoken (maybe Voice Coach Emma Vane's work on her Romeo and Juliet Nurse has paid off; but she sounds a natural), with richly, amusingly expressive features, Barrett excelled all evening (including as a particularly nauseating staff member). She has range and depth.

Gabrielle Dempsey (Wendla) came closest to suggesting the very young age of these ill-fated participants. Whatever her years, we can believe her confusion about pregnancy (storks, and presumably Father Christmas, are still de rigueur in the Bergman household; her mother is determined she shall remain a child – perhaps understandably, 12/13 being the cusp): the only surprise, perhaps, is that she has it thrust upon her (literally, by Melchior's own confused priapic assault (perhaps little Hans's should not have been the only organ on show), which she strives, or part-strives, to resist), rather than actively, eagerly if naïvely desires it.

Facing the inevitable: Pistol in hand, Christopher Smart, unforgettable as the 14-year-old Moritz Stiefel, glimpses the end

This was a beautifully gauged, deep performance from an actress laden with charisma and sensitivity.

Georgina Periam as Melchior's mother, Frau Gabor, the one adult who comes near to an understanding (hence pilloried by Holton's merciless, self-satisfied father, his much more impressive role) was a joy to watch all evening.

The set-piece scene where she writes to Moritz (‘Lieber Herr Stiefel…' - he being onstage, aloft – near-crucified – throughout, received letter in hand), was possibly – along with every word uttered by Moritz - this production's masterpiece: as poignant as Tatyana's gut-wrenching letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Nicole Anderson has the bit roles, but impressed, especially in the (to a degree) maturer Ilse's more confident assertions. She, too, offers a path to sanity. (In one brief sequence Anderson appears, touchingly, as a not unperceptive little sister, Thea). Appropriately, she is Icarus Theatre's Juliet on the current tour. 

That leaves Moritz. Lichfield-born, Birmingham-trained Christopher Smart (how apt a name, when madness beckons) is the undoubted star of the show. The range of faces, of wide-eyed amazement or and face-twisting puzzlement, the bursts of explosive enthusiasm, confused frustration and deep-ingrained pessimism, reveal an actor of quite terrific range.

Endlessly studious Stiefel junior is a sexual as well as intellectual ingénu. One feels that if only he could have shared his seed with Hans or Ernst, or been inducted by Ilse, some of the tensions might have lifted. Smart's Moritz has zeal in plenty, is a dutiful and presumably fledgling scholar who quotes the need to prepify or revise every time a life experience threatens; yet is, like Moritz, a genuine seeker. And it is he who will commit suicide before he even reaches his GCSEs or a shared orgasm: Moritz becomes precisely the headless man of his dream, early in the play.

And that is the tragedy of it: not only are they, children and parents alike, headless, whether through callow unreadiness or mindless conformity or simple self-mutilation (though Melchior keeps his, and strugglingly emerges the real sage of the show); but so are all of us. We have scant hope of solving life's riddles (religion is a salient one, shifting moralities another), however much astronomers and psychologists and life's other cryptographers can tell us. Moritz's headlessness is a symbol of us all.

With Frühlings Erwachen, some 20 years before Expressionism took off (and what they termed Stationendramen: a kind of Golgotha for the stage, which is what Lewendel's testing, thought-provoking and thought-through presentation conceivably evokes), the 27-year-old Frank Wedekind, the source of Berg's Lulu (shortly to be toured to Birmingham's Hippodrome), has succeeded in writing a masterpiece, flawed yet sensationally ahead of its times, in which every character is a Jedermann. Or is that what plays do? Nonetheless, no mean feat. 24-01-13

Roderic Dunnett

Midland dates
11-16 Feb Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury (not every day)
Mon 4 Mar Stantonbury Campus, Milton Keynes
Fri 29 Mar Stafford Gatehouse Theatre
www.icarustheatre.co.uk/shows/spring.html 

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