Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sprung Awake: Spring Awakening

There is much to like about Spring Awakening, the new rock-emo musical based on Frank Wedekind's late-nineteenth century play on at the Lyric Hammersmith: it has some very tender acting, a couple of memorable songs, some very lyrical lyrics (when audible) and a knock-out neon-bar set.

It - for me, but clearly not for the hundreds of mooning teenagers in the audience - had one serious problem: it could not make me engage emotionally. But more on this later.

The play exists on a similar plane to A Clockwork Orange and Lady Chatterley's Lover: its explicit sex among teenagers has made it a perfect candidate for black-listing. (Frankly, it should be a mark of pride and distinction rather than dishonour.) Class stud and intellectual aspirant Melchior (Aneurin Barnard, touching) accidentally impregnates innocent (but willing) Wendla (Charlotte Wakefield), while depressed nihilist Moritz (Iwan Rheon) faces his parents, his teachers and his (lack of a) future in a society where children are first oppressed, then made into cogs in the machine of life. It is, in fact, a perfect analogue for A Clockwork Orange's dispossessed teens, who instead take the path of violence.

This production does not shy away from the sex - masturbation in a nightshirt raises all sorts of questions, and there is even a teenage breast for the boys dragged there - but it makes it such a natural part of the lives of these characters that it is wholly justifiable. (The 'kids', tho' 14 in appearance, range from 16 to 25.)

It is odd to talk about what is natural in a musical, where things are inherently not natural: communal singing and dancing may be part of a rich inner life, but it is their expression which is odd. Spring Awakening overcomes this because the songs come at pitches of rage, or despair, or desire, when a recourse to words is not enough.

There are no showtunes in the manner of the Lloyd Webber, but rather a blend of metal-rock and emo instantly recognisable to anyone who has been (or known) a teenager in the past decade. (The book and lyrics are by Steven Sater, the music by Duncan Sheik.) They are not wildly individual or catchy, but their lyrics, which revel in the emotional colour of the Romantics' verse, cut to the dreamy hearts or angry minds of the characters. If they were more clearly sung, they would be a real achievement.

This production is inescapably tender, but never mawkish: when Melchior and Wendla have sex - well-staged on a floating platform - their friends sit around them on the floor below and sing of true belief in love. The early meeting of Melchior and Wendla is beautifully done (tho' it's hard to tell from this clip):

While this could be construed as Dawson's Creek with songs, it is really much more touching.

The problem I have with Spring Awakening is almost certainly more to do with me than with the play, but it is still a fair point, I think. Like with the paintings of Mark Rothko, people like to sit in front of Spring Awakening and pour out their angst and misery, project it onto the work of art. It is a very public form of sadness and it seems more for display value than for itself: it says, 'Look, I am sensitive. I have feelings.'

I am not embarrassed by public displays of emotion, but it seems that Spring Awakening requires that leap into grief to succeed fully. Without reserve, no doubt I could have soaked through a handkerchief or three as did the teenage girls flooding the stalls, but it felt a little too forced, a little too much of a prerequisite: it operated on a level of too-easy emotion. Or perhaps it was just me.

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