Æ Review – Spring Awakening

Nov 3 2010 | By More

★★★★☆    Brutal

Traverse Theatre: November 2010
Review by Thom Dibdin

Grid Iron Theatre Company have joined forces with the Traverse theatre to create a brief, brutal and quite devastating new working of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening.

Douglas Maxwell’s tight new version of the script runs at a mere 80 minutes and transports Wedekind’s fin-de-siecle Germany to early 20th century Scotland. It’s a move which makes great sense, allowing the whole production team to create a vibrant, relevant production.

Kirsty Stuart as Wendla and Gavin Wright as Melchior. Photo by Richard Campbell.

Designer Ali Maclaurin is able to use motifs of the Scottish arts and crafts movement, such as a spiralling form of Mackintosh’s Rose, to create the white-on-black world of the 14 year-old children as it bursts out through the blackboard of their classroom.

It moves the pointing finger away from Wedekind’s preoccupation with the particular kinds of repression inherent in his time, to land upon Maxwell and director Ben Harrison’s own preoccupations with the particular repressive instincts of Calvinism that were – or indeed are – native to Scotland.

So that when the precocious Melchior is berated by his liberal mother for reading a book he is too young to understanding, it is not Faust that he is discovered with, but Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

If the accent is local, the language is universal, however, transcending both time and national boundary. These are pubescent children, clinging on to the freedoms of their infancy but wanting to give full reign to the strange feelings and stirrings that come with the territory.

Damningly, these are adults who are scared to give their charges the wherewithal to deal with puberty. Parents who warn and prohibit, force competition, demand maturity, but are not mature enough – or are too hidebound by the morals of their time – to give mature answers to straight questions.

Gail Watson as Wendla’s mother.photo credit Richard Campbell

The brevity and abrupt, almost comic-book structure means that there little opportunity to build tension, although Philip Pinsky’s well-crafted sound design helps. Instead, the adult characters are the caricatures which self-obsessed adolescents hardly even acknowledge in their elders. The children are intense beings who throw around quotations with no understanding of their deeper meanings.

Harrison has brought out a brilliant ensemble performance, led by Gavin Wright as the bright Melchior, Fin den Hertog as his sex-obsessed best friend Moritz who is flunking his exams, and Kirsty Stuart as Wendla, the girl who has the wit to ask a grown-up, directly, where babies come from.

Wright’s Melchior guides the plot, providing Moritz with the theoretical knowledge of how sex works, drawing diagrams in chalk on the floor of the erect penis – but displaying his own ignorance when it comes to the female anatomy. Not so ignorant, however, that is incapable of giving Wendla a practical demonstration.

As Melchior’s friends are destroyed, so Wright’s solid and arrogant surface is given depths of doubt as Melchior comes to understand their capabilities and his own inadequacies.

Gail Watson also puts in an utterly brilliant performance. As Melchior’s voluptuous mother, she tries her best to provide Moritz with the carnal experience he desires. As Wendla’s uptight mother, she denies her daughter the information that would allow safe passage into adulthood. And as the vile teacher Skelf, she stotts around, breeding ignorance in her charges. You would be forgiven for thinking that three completely different actresses played the roles.

This is still a stinging rebuke at the way children are treated. It stings with the truth for those who remember the emotional pain and fumbling uncertainty of being 14. It stings with truth for those who have entered the pact of parenthood and who know the fear of how much to tell – and when.

Most of all, however, it is a production that has much to say at this particular moment in time, when funding decisions are being made that will effect the depth of education for years, maybe generations, to come.

Run continues to Saturday 13 November


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