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Lyric Hammersmith presents

Spring Awakening

 

Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater

 

Directed by Michael Mayer

 

Music by Duncan Sheik

 

Choreography by Bill T. Jones

 

23 January – 28 February 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a1y Couzen

A review by Colette Gunn-Graffy for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

It took Broadway by storm, garnering eight Tonys (among other awards) and impressing critics with the frank treatment of its major theme: sex. Now Spring Awakening, the unique rock-musical collaboration between award-winning lyricist Steven Sater and pop star Duncan Sheik, is playing to rapt audiences in London’s Lyric Hammersmith.

The choice to adapt this play as a musical is an interesting one. Written at the end of the nineteenth century by German playwright Frank Wendekind, the original Spring Awakening has often been banned or censored for its dark and provocative subject matter: which includes, among other things, masturbation, rape, suicide and abortion – i.e., not your typical musical fare. Although Sater and Sheik’s version of the play is intentionally more hopeful than the original, it still retains Wendekind’s major characters and much of his storyline, as well as the setting. In nineteenth century Germany, a group of schoolchildren are turning into adults; yet the physical and mental changes they are experiencing – in particular, the longings that plague them – are not ones that can be talked about. In this repressive society, even knowledge of the nature of conception is withheld from the children; on her 14th birthday, beautiful blossoming Wendla is told simply that it is what happens when a woman loves a man very much. Instead the young people confide in and educate each other, even though to the adult world, simple possession of the facts of life – much less, sharing one’s understanding of them – is a punishable offence, and it is this fear of knowledge that ultimately results in tragedy. Sheik’s rock n’roll numbers, then, become a device for exploring the angst and isolation of various young characters – quite fitting, considering rock music’s long association with youth, rebellion and raging hormones.

Indeed, there is much to like about this production, whose original story and subject matter are a breath of fresh air to a theatrical genre that currently seems to consist entirely of adaptations of successful films and pop stars’ ‘Best Of’ albums. First and foremost is its young cast, all of whom are relatively unknown. The three main actors – Charlotte Wakefield as curious Wendla, Aneurin Barnard as free-thinking Melchior and Iwan Rheon as hopeless Moritz – are excellent in their roles, but it is the energy and earnest commitment of the company as a whole – and of course, their fabulous voices – that really makes this production (if you’ll excuse the pun) sing. As the only two actors over the age of 25, Richard Cordery and Sian Thomas must also be applauded for their many turns in the various ‘Adult’ roles. Maintaining just enough nuance to distinguish each character from the other, Cordery and Thomas nevertheless drive home the crucial point that – in this play, at least – all the adults serve the same repressive function.

The honesty with which Sater and director Michael Mayer attempt to come at the sometimes vulgarised, frequently idealised topic of sexual awakening, is amplified by the simplicity of the technical and design aspects of the production. Just as there is no fancy choreography (actors tend to pick up hand microphones and sing directly to the audience), there are no large, showy set pieces or spectacular scene changes. The orchestra sits visibly on the stage, which has been designed to look like a school gymnasium, and although locations shift from home interiors, to school, to fields, the scenery does not change.

Yet there are moments in the play when a sort of ‘MTV-aesthetic’ takes over and the real anguish of these young people’s longing for something which they themselves can not even legitimately pursue or even identify is nudged into the background while we party-on to their angry rock monologues. Even in this modern production, death remains a major consequence of thwarted longings, and yet the songs surrounding these deaths do not penetrate our skin half as deeply as ‘The Dark I Know Well’, sung by Martha and Ilse, both of whom have been sexually abused by their fathers.

Despite its moments of lovely tenderness between young lovers Wendla and Melchior, and the feel-good-rebelliousness of many of its musical numbers, Spring Awakening is not a happy play, nor does it always strike the right chords. However, as an energising vehicle for new talent and a searing indictment of those who view ignorance as a form of protection, it is not to be missed.

 

Mon – Sat @ 7:30pm
Adults £15 - £30; 16 – 25s/Students/Concs £10
Schools/Colleges £9; Groups 10+ £2 off
Box Office: 0871 22 117 26; www.lyric.co.uk
Venue: The Lyric Hammersmith
Lyric Square, King Street, London W6 0QL

 

 

 

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