*** DEBUG END ***

Making love, not war, in the Kaiser’s land

15 February 2013

Roderic Dunnett sees Wedekind's protest against hypocrisy


FRANK WEDEKIND liked to shock. He lived in a society - that of Germany in the late 19th century, the era of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm - that, he felt, needed shocking out of religious and institutional complacency, dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, and moribund social and personal values.

It is this that gave rise to his plays Pandora's Box, the inspiration for Berg's sensual opera Lulu (currently being staged by Welsh National Opera); and, before that, to the iconoclastic and poetic Spring Awakening, finished in 1891, but first staged in 1906, in Berlin.

Spring Awakening is touring, to venues from the exquisite theatre at Chipping Norton, a former Salvation Army citadel, to the Key Theatre, Peterborough, in a passionate, no-holds-barred production by Icarus Theatre Collective. The director, Max Lewendel, fields young actors talented (and shameless) enough to evoke the teenage roles that this challenging play demands.

As profoundly moral as it is shocking - graphic scenes of sexuality and violence and a morbid graveyard sequence form essential ingredients - Spring Awakening was one of the earliest plays to be staged at the National Theatre, when Peter Firth and Michael Kitchen - icons of the small screen nowadays - played the two fervid leads, Melchior Gabor and Moritz Stiefel: instinctive young people striving after a moral compass in a world peopled by morons; for the play treats adults with unveiled contempt. The Church, judiciary, teachers, politicians, and even parents reveal their hopeless inadequacy in coping with their own lives or their emotionally beleaguered offspring, battered by puberty and the trials of emerging adulthood.

Here sex is the springboard: for these 14- and 15-year-olds, inexperience, experimentation, guilt, repentance, and, conversely, asseverativeness accompany a deep-seated longing - sense of duty, even - to fashion a set of values that make sense instead of just being trotted out.

Traditionalism, we infer, is stifling the country: it is the state that is obscene, not they with their toyings with free love; the young people here, dead and alive, are a symbol for the doomed future of Germany - a militaristic, acquisitive future lurching into a First World War.

Amid this moral maze, there were performances one could praise to the skies. The hapless mothers (Georgina Periam, Gemma Barrett), one of whom pontificatingly declines to help her son's friend, so that these spurned cris-de-coeur lead on to his suicide; the other (it was Beryl Reid at the National) insists, perhaps understandably, on her 14-year-old daughter's having the backstreet abortion that kills her.

Gabrielle Dempsey as the girl, Wendla, seeking experience and yet shying away in the face of it, confirmed not just the talents of this young actress, but the brilliance of Wedekind's emotional microscope.

Lewendel's graphic production could scarcely be faulted. As the principal boys, David McLaughlin is fine in the Peter Firth role: the survivor, surfing rage and pent-up desires to the point of rape, but embracing some emergent compromise. Christopher Smart is ravishing as the inward-turned, confused, scholarly, and ultimately self-extinguishing Moritz. So is Kaiden DuBois as Hans, the self-abusing, exploratorily gay friend, and Nicole Anderson as the more experienced muse figure Ilse, whose good sense might have saved them all.

Zachary Holton moves weakly as the crucial tempting/redeeming Masked Man at the end, but proves strong as Melchior's tetchy, judgemental, unforgiving father, whose entrenched immobility, that of a "self-perpetuating élite", sums up the whole problem.


Spring Awakening is touring: to Shrewsbury (Theatre Severn, 16 February, 2.30 and 7.30 p.m.), Cambridge, Peterborough, Milton Keynes, Musselburgh, Kirkcaldy, Harlow, Buxton, and Coleraine, until Thursday 8 May. For full details of venues and to book tickets, see www.icarustheatre.co.uk. (Phone nos. for bookings vary. General information: phone 020 7998 1562.)

Northampton Youth Theatre will be staging Spring Awakening: The musical Underground at the Derngate Theatre, Guildhall Road, Northampton, from Thursday 28 February to Saturday 2 March. Box office: phone 01604 624811.


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