Thursday 27 January 2022

Spring Awakening


22nd January 2022, matinee


It's cold in these bones
of a man and a child


I never got to see the original award-winning production of Spring Awakening, but in my lonely teenage years I had the cast recording playing on an endless loop and sought out all the bootleg videos I could find on YouTube – I thought I knew the musical inside out, and of course, like many other MT-obsessed adolescents in the late noughties, it spoke to me deeply. Now, revisiting Spring Awakening more than a decade later I realise that it is so much more than the ‘ultimate teen angst musical’ it’s purported to be. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical is abundant with relevancies to audiences young and old alike. And while teens may feel the immediacy of its themes with the painful intensity preserved for the young, I can now see that it is also older generations – and indeed future generations – that must pay heed to its message.

In one sense, Spring Awakening is about the conflict between childhood and adulthood. Sater and Sheik capture the exquisite melancholia of growing up and the multitude of confusing, thrilling and horrifying feelings we all feel during adolescence. This is especially poignant in the Act 2 opening number, ‘There Once Was A Pirate’, which has been reintroduced in this production. While the musical covers difficult subjects surrounding physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the other overriding motif is the silencing of young people. As the characters try to make sense of – and question – the world around them they are repeatedly supressed and belittled by the adults in their lives that should be the ones guiding them. The frequency with which young peoples’ thoughts and actions are dismissed resonates still in a time where Gen Z and Millennials are being short-changed, ridiculed and scape-goated by the older generations in positions of power. ‘All That’s Known’ posits that ‘everything you say is just another bad about you’, highlighting the lack of communication and resulting wars between generations; a sentiment revisited in ‘Totally Fucked’ which perfectly echoes Greta Thunberg’s recent statement on world leaders’ position on climate change – ‘blah, blah, blah’. Rupert Goold’s protraction of this number is a masterstroke, the lingering awkwardness as the song peters out while the young cast fiercely stare down the audience is one of the most striking images of the production. Stunned into silence, there was no applause.

As such, Rupert Goold has rejected much of the whimsy of the original Broadway and London productions, in favour of a starker exploration of the purgatory of adolescence, in which the characters are trapped within a childhood dictated by unfeeling adults. This is consolidated by Miriam Buether (set) and Nicky Gillibrand’s (costume) assured design. The Tim Burton-esque monochrome aesthetic is chic, while also providing an apt framing device. By placing the young characters literally within a blackboard setting we see how the adult characters perceive them through a lens filtered by academic achievement and strict societal ‘rules’. Unnamed, bemasked and bewigged, the anonymous grown-ups are consolidated into a force of universal oppression. Yet the scholastic set also becomes an apparatus of rebellion when the characters pick up the chalk and annotate the world around them.

I particularly enjoyed Lynne Page’s choreography, which is punchy and humorous in the ensemble numbers (who doesn’t enjoy a well-timed hip-thrust in ‘The Bitch of Living’?!), while the combination of sensuousness and innocence in ‘The Word of Your Body’ is especially touching. The performances are uniformly excellent; Goold has assembled a fine ensemble of up-and-coming young actors that are indefatigable in their energy and show a passionate dedication to the piece. Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea’s Hanschen is genuinely funny and charming and Carly-Sophia Davies offers a fresh and edgy portrayal of the nomadic and troubled Ilse. I admired the quiet despair brought to Moritz by Stuart Thompson (also a stand-out in the recent National Theatre production of A Taste of Honey); his understated performance is heart-breaking, especially in the gently weary way he confronts his fate in the ‘Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind’ scene. Amara Okereke also gives a beautifully subtle performance as the sweetly naïve Wendla, and Laurie Kynaston leads with natural charisma, capturing Melchior’s intellectual anguish, earnest radicalism and boyish exuberance with great heart.

Spring Awakening may seem to be full of despair – and, to be fair, in our current political and social climate it’s difficult not to agree with such nihilistic sentiments – but the musical is not bereft of hope. In one of musical theatre’s most beautiful finales we are reminded that life continues, generations will grow, learn and prosper, and the pains endured in the pursuit of maturity are all threads in the rich tapestry of life. Yes, the plot is hard-hitting and damning, but we can all learn a thing or two about hope, change and empathy by looking to the past in remembrance of the future. This is a stunning production of a timely musical.

Spring Awakening plays at the Almeida theatre until 29th January 2022. 

The cast of Spring Awakening.
Credit: Marc Brenner

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