first night

Spring Awakening

Rebecca Mackinnon left with a spring in her step after Bailey Theatre Company's latest awakening...


BTC’s long anticipated production of Fran Wedekind’s transgressive piece Spring Awakening is a challenging theatrical experience. Located in the claustrophobic black-box setting of Leech Hall, the directors (Ben Salter and Hannah Shand) presented us with a long-overdue departure from the Assembly Rooms as a traditional proscenium arch theatrical space. The hanging curtains and ominously shaped black floor panels on the middle of the performance space were effective and atmospheric.
The first point that must be made about this production is that everyone needs to slow down.  A touch of first night nerves appeared to get the better of some of the cast at points, and in the round, lines must be accentuated more, not less. Harry Bresslaw’s Hanschen and Nikki Jones’ turn as Frau Gabor were the only actors who consistently achieved the measured pace necessary for such a wordy play. Technically, the play was very successful. Stunning lighting sequences were used to great effect; backlighting and torches were lovely touches that allowed the actors to play with the boundaries of traditional representation; at the beginning of the second act, for example, Melchior stood trial against the threatening panel of professors while a torch was shined in his face. Greg Silverman as Melchior turned this simple direction into emotional crisis, and his pained expression as he faced the harsh light was beautifully understated. The music was moody and very effective, highlighting and complementing the action very well (although the appearance of the Kings of Leon in the second act was a little out of place). However, problems with the sound cutting in and out too suddenly undermined this effect slightly. At points, the lights would fade before a character had finished speaking, and it was unclear as to whether this was deliberate or simply errors in timing – if deliberate, it could be very powerful if exploited further.
The cast dealt beautifully with a script that seemed in every way to conspire against their honesty as performers. Like Greek tragedy or T.S Eliot, the language of the play is inaccessible and grandiloquous; the themes are relevant, poignant and tragic – the writing, I felt, was not. This is a matter of personal preference – I would rather see something human than performed poetry, however beautiful the poetry. The translation jarred with itself – moments of understated and natural language were set against overintellectualised angst, and this certainly seemed to hinder the flow of the play. Having said that, the staid language was overcome at certain points with a lovely tongue-in-cheek attitude; a favourite moment was that in which Silverman, in trying to teach Callum Cheatle’s Moritz about the birds and the bees, said with a glint in his eye, ‘We’ll have a nice chat about reproduction.’ Very good.  
Cheatle was divinely innocent and likeable as the suicidal Moritz, with lovely moments of humour, and he captured the youth of the character very well. Silverman was admirably broody as Melchior – his intensity in the final scene was wonderful to watch (although, again, the language seemed to delineate his thoughts into such abstract moments that it was difficult for him to find any common motive and give any emotional continuity to the scene). The rape scene was chilling. Silverman seemed to snap and the moment at which he suddenly became violent was quite a shock. Tash Cowley’s (Wendla) frightened writhing beneath him certainly left an impression. I felt at first that the boundaries of comfort could have been pushed further here, drawing the scene out to the point of being unbearable – until the next scene when, as Frau Gabor (Jones) softly read a letter at the corner of the stage, Cowley lay shaking in a pool of light in the middle of the space. Forced to watch her, I did feel my skin crawl – this was beautifully directed. Cowley had some lovely moments – her anticipation at her mother’s revelation left her childlike with excitement – and yet at other times I was disappointed with her physical characterisation. She played with her hair constantly (a very pedantic point that I’m sorry to have to make in the light of such a lovely all-round performance) which pulled her right back into the 21st century and out of childhood. Catherine Goode and Liz Smith as Martha and Thea, however, portrayed the young girls beautifully – physically unselfconscious the way a child should be, yet with endearing nervous twitches that captured their energy. Goode’s prayer over Moritz’ grave was one of the most poignant moments of the play; her glances at the grave gave the impression of great fear and fascination in the face of death.
Harry Bresslaw shone on the role of the serial masturbator, Hanschen Rilow. His monologue was one of the best scenes in the play – comic, meaningful, pathetic. The challenge in playing a sexual moment with humour must be very difficult, yet Bresslaw managed it stunningly. His knowing smile and the cheeky glint in his eye continued throughout, and contrasted beautifully with Jonathan Bower’s gangly innocence as Ernst. Matthew Urwin was wonderfully complicated and severe as Herr Gabor, and his tone of absurdity in the blacked-out trial scene was pitch-perfect. My only problem was that, in playing three characters, he didn’t have much chance to develop any of them, which was a great shame. Nikki Jones as Frau Gabor and Frau Bergman did very well in her sharply delineated characterisation, with very good comic timing at some points, and at others a touching gravitas. Niamh Murphy as the overtly sexual Ilse commanded the stage – her physicality nicely touched on the boundaries between childhood and womanhood. She was at once overly sure of herself and very, very delicate.
Spring Awakening has fantastic performances and some truly beautiful directorial ideas. However, for me, this was undermined (though by no means overshadowed) by the verbose language that seemed to hinder rather than help either the cast or audience towards any emotional connection.

9 March 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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