Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Spring Awakening

Frank Wedekind (adapted by Anya Reiss)
Headlong
Liverpool Playhouse

Oliver Johnstone Credit: Tristram Kenton
Aoife Duffin and Oliver Johnstone Credit: Tristram Kenton
Claudia Grant, Aoife Duffin and Ruby Thomas Credit: Tristram Kenton

How do you ‘breathe fresh life into a classic?’ If you are Headlong Theatre company it appears you simply go all techy: flashing lights, screen projections, pounding hip-hop soundtrack and Skype chats. Oh and you also throw in enough F-words to have Gordon Ramsey blushing.

But what if the play you are bringing screaming and kicking into the 21st century came out of a very specific social milieu? What if, in the hundred or so years that have passed between then and now, a seismic shift in social relations has taken place? Is it enough simply to just throw in The Internet?

On the face of it, hitching a lift on the back of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening must have seemed a shrewd move. After all the play has a somewhat chequered history, its central theme of adolescent sexuality coupled with dubious adult morality has always attracted the attention of the censors as well as 'outraged' of Tunbridge Wells.

And so 22-year-old Anya Reiss has ‘adapted’ the play. It’s a word that could and should strike fear into the heart of theatre-goers. Something has happened to Spring Awakening of that much I am certain, but precisely what, remains beyond my comprehension.

It’s roughly the same play as Wedekind’s original, certainly the characters are all present and correct, Melchior, Moritz and co. But Miss Reiss’s boyz 'n' girlz have entered the Internet age where they happily surf for porn. Thus, it seems we have entered a modern age of sorts—I say ‘seems’ because it’s never quite clear where exactly this version of the play locates itself in time and space.

One moment we are following the original script and are thus in late nineteenth century Germany and then, for no particular reason, the characters seem to have walked right off the set from P’Tang Yang Kipperbang in 1940s Britain talking awfully nicely, before finally ending up somewhere else—maybe at the gates of Grange Hill. And what about projecting Othello onto the screen? Random.

And do ‘modern’ teenagers really masturbate to descriptions of Renaissance paintings? Because the ones on this stage do. Well it got a laugh—two laughs—which may go some way to explaining its inclusion. Miss Reiss has certainly chopped and shaped Wedekind’s script, but not in any meaningful way.

While the sexual naivety of Wedekind’s teenagers is all too believable, Reiss stretches credulity to braking point in asking the audience to simply transpose this aspect to present times. If Wendla’s mother wouldn’t tell her how babies are made, surely she could have switched on her superfast wi-fi connection and asked Jeeves?

The young cast try their hardest but sometimes performances are tentative and voices drop. The play starts with a bang, but the more it goes on, the more it loses itself and has to rely on its flashing lights and pounding soundtrack.

Melchior and Moritz never seem quite certain about who and where they are. Indeed all the play’s characters are thinly sketched, impressionistic rather than fully-rounded. Spring Awakening plays like a good old ensemble piece, but what it really needed in order to truly take off was the emergence of a true tragic hero. It never happened.

Director Ben Kidd meanwhile is notable by his absence, lost within his gizmos. Fine, if you like that sort of thing. But come on, give these guys a chance. Give them some direction.

Overall this version is a bold yet ultimately flawed production. A triumph of style over substance. Nothing wrong with youth nor exuberance, but experience too has its place. Yes, there is a good play struggling to get out, but it’s called Spring Awakening and it’s by Frank Wedekind. Sometimes, if it ain’t broken…

Reviewer: David Sedgwick