It was weird for me last night, going to the opening of UCT’s production of Spring Awakening. I was in Chris Weare’s production in 1984! And although I couldn’t even remember my character’s name, I have such clear memories of the little green and pink and white checked dress I wore, and the white bobby socks and little black shoes. Freaky. Seeing the programme up on the pin board was scary too. There were people in that cast that I don’t remember at all, but pictures of Patrick Lilley, Claire Berlein, Ingrid Emslie and Michelle Constant took me straight back 26 years ago, to that time.
Watching the play from this perspective made me understand how difficult a production it is to mount. Spring Awakening, written by Frank Wedekind, is set in Germany at the end of the 19th century, predating what would happen there by fifty or so years, but creating the platform for it in terms of repression, shame, education, parental control and unrealistic expectation. These are huge issues. Because of the sexual and, for the time, explicit nature of the content and scenes, the play was often banned. These days we are all too used to seeing young men masturbating on stage, boy on boy kissing, and nudity and sex have become terribly explicit. So, the real issue of the play, the bursting of puberty and the shame it brings in a repressive society, are a fantasy idea for most of this young cast. Especially in a country with unbelievably high teenage pregnancy and horrific and brutal child abuse stats, child prostitutes, peer sexual violence among children, the sexual innocence of Spring Awakening is very dated and diluted.
One of the other difficulties with this play is, however tempting it is as a drama school production because there are lots of parts for young actors, it is unbelievably difficult for young, inexperienced actors to sustain! I remember Chris Weare’s frustration our time around! The parts are either children, always hideous and difficult to play, parents, who for young actors are not the best fun, or teachers, who at least can be sent up in this play, but are not well developed people and have to remain within their names of Professors Breakneck, Tongue Twister, Total Loss and Strychnine.
Then there is the script itself, which is scenic and cinematic, jumping from one scene to the next, and from location to location. Unfortunately, over the years, we are less able as an audience to manage such long scenes, and for the most part they are very long.
Those are the problems up front. Now to this production.Â This production is in The Little Theatre. The wooden beamed stage is very, very raked and there is a huge raised walkway through the audience, bringing performers on stage from the back of the auditorium. There is an amazing, repetitive, motion cloud projection on the cyclorama at the back. Gideon Lombard sits in mostly silhouette Â in the top right hand corner with a guitar and amp. And that sets the scene. The set, designed by Daniel Galloway and Chris Weare is beautiful. Almost as completely beautiful as Daniel’s lighting, which is breathtaking. Leigh Bishop’s costumes are fabulous; an incredible combination of period and theatrical.
The students, for the most part, have really good moments. Rudi Swart, who plays Melchior, was my favourite. He gave a really tempered, interesting and natural performance, and elicited true sympathy from me. Next was Lethabo-Thabo Royds, who had the difficult task of playing Melchior’s mother. She really grew on me. In her first scene I felt like she was fighting with her dress a little bit, but, after that, I found her still, sincere performance the most moving of all. James MacGregor (who I adored as Romeo) was less successful for me as Moritz Stiefel. There is no doubt that it is a hellishly difficult part, but it was just too childish caricature for me. The young girls all had their moments, but I was left with the overall impression that they didn’t ‘get it’, in terms of the overwhelming unnamable stuff they were feeling, and why it was so big, confusing and bad.
So, in a nutshell, this production is a breathtakingly beautiful study of the past. But it is not exciting, moving or challenging. The horror that we sit with, as an audience today, is, is there anything that can shock us, ever again?