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Disappointed by the first days of spring

Posted on 18th March 2010. 2 Comments

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Spring Awakening, Bailey Theatre Company, Leech Hall, 04/03/2010       

the play’s classical shape and sense of grandeur should give tragic resonance to its modern concerns

 I can understand why Ben Salter and Hannah Shand chose to stage Frank Wedekind’s late nineteenth-century drama. Its themes (sexuality, the repression of the young, the dangers of knowing too little or too much) are undeniably urgent; its sensibility (brash, occasionally vulgar) is undoubtedly contemporary. I can understand their choice, but I cannot applaud it. In my opinion, the Bailey Theatre Company’s latest production laboured under a significant, if self-imposed, burden.

Plays are creatures of circumstance. The greatest spring from a particular moment in time but transcend it. Shakespeare and Sophocles, handled correctly, can be reincarnated from generation to generation, fresh blood pouring through hallowed veins. Wedekind shrivelled like a slug embalmed in salt. In theory, Spring Awakening’s classical shape and sense of grandeur should give tragic resonance to its modern concerns. What actually transpired was melodrama: a play of ideas which a century ago were sensational but nowadays feel as quaint as back projection, superimposed onto characters too thinly drawn to bear classical motifs. One can see why it works as a musical.

the dramatic rhythm was jagged rather than energetic

Consider the two leads (and the actors most hamstrung by the script), Natasha Cowley (Wendla) and Greg Silverman (Melchior). Cowley’s admirable tendency was to find a more natural, less hysterical mode of expression, but her character lacked the dimensions which this strategy might have unearthed. For example, Wendla’s request for Melchior to strike her with a switch could have revealed much about her, had a vein of self-loathing been discernable in her previous actions. But there was no such vein for Cowley to trace. The request was thematically rather than psychologically motivated, springing from a need to turn guilt into masochism which was too clearly Wedekind’s rather than Wendla’s. Likewise with Melchior’s alacrity in accepting her offer: Silverman had suggested youthful arrogance and dogmatism in the scenes prior to this, but not (for me at least) any latent brutality. Similar criticisms can be made of the subsequent rape. This pattern, actors groping for significance and finding only ideology, constricted much of the production.

The primary blame for this undoubtedly lies with the script, but a secondary blame lies with the direction. I felt the dramatic rhythm was jagged rather than energetic: characters tended to lurch into wild emotion, where the tension could have been ratcheted up by gradual shading. For example Melchior, on realising Wendla is dead, straight away bursts into tears, thus losing the chance to capture the rawness of the moment, or to underscore its importance for the play as a whole. Another problem was the blocking. The decision to perform in the round helped to reconfigure Leech Hall as a more intimate space, but it created inevitable problems with sightlines. Furthermore, a great deal of the movement was stilted. The dip in the middle of the stage provided a natural point of focus, but precluded diagonal lines, and led to many scenes where the actors would circle without apparent reason or form rigid triangles. The fluidity and sense of spontaneity which theatre in the round requires was too often missing.

the two best performances came from actors with lengthy monologues

Where the direction succeeded was in creating a distinctive atmosphere. In a number of scenes, delicate underlighting and carefully-chosen music shadowed the actors without overshadowing them. I am not a fan of music being played under speech, but I have to admit it worked more than once in this production. And occasionally the staging of individual scenes illuminated the themes beautifully. The rape scene, which felt somewhat rushed, was thrown into pathetic relief by what followed: Cowley lying prone, bathed in weak light, while Melchior’s mother reads a letter dismissing his request for assistance. Later, after Melchior’s parents have decided to send him to reformatory, he is revealed crouching beneath the table, where he had been listening all along. A simple piece of staging captured the character’s sense of social restriction and lack of maturity better than any of the play’s discourse on this point.

Given the nature of the script, it is hardly surprising that the two best performances came from actors with lengthy monologues. Harry Bresslaw (Hanschen) was excellent throughout, adding unexpected tinges of pathos to his wonderful comic expression. His masturbation soliloquy, complete with digital special effects, was a triumph of brio, commitment and rhythm (and the speech wasn’t bad either). Callum Cheatle played Moritz, whose suicide triggers Melchior’s downward spiral, with a nice balance of intensity and uncertainty, even occasionally allowing him to poke fun at himself. I liked the initial rapport he established with Silverman, and I liked the way Cheatle chafed Moritz’s bruised idealism into an open wound in the monologue before he kills himself. In contrast, Silverman established a convincing schoolboy manner, but I felt he was less comfortable the more angsty Melchior became. He tended to overplay his physical response to emotions, though his voice did at times carry a wonderful weakness.

It is rarely a good sign when a play’s climax needs its own footnote

Matt Urwin gave an impressively passionate performance as Melchior’s father, though he was too youthful in his bearing. He was also the best of the professors who expel Melchior, which is to say his was the most ridiculous performance in a scene which felt like it had been faxed in from an entirely different production. Nikki Jones matched Urwin in her role as Melchior’s mother, but I felt she was less successful as Wendla’s mother. This character afforded Jones no room to deploy her full expressive range, forcing her into simpering or shrillness. This in turn hampered Cowley, who lacked the sense  of a restrictive context against which her teenage inquisitiveness could strive.

Liz Smith and Catherine Goode, playing Wendla’s friends, went some way towards compensating for this: Smith providing comic notes, Goode a more soulful and anxious performance. The other teenage girl, Ilse, is the most grown-up of the young characters, but in a merely superficial way. Niamh Murphy served her well, with a flirtatious manner which suggested vacuous hedonism without skewering the character. Murphy also appeared in the truly bizarre last scene as a character whom the programme tells me was the Masked Man, and which my instinct tells me was a riff on Mephistopheles (there was a reference to Faust earlier in the play). But as to the significance of this character, both the programme and my instinct are mute. It is rarely a good sign when a play’s climax needs its own footnote. In fact, it is a strong indication that the cast and crew, talented and committed as they are, should have been working with different material all along. This is verdict on Spring Awakening which I am led to: the right people took on the wrong play, and unfortunately the play won out.

Donnchadh O’Conaill. Photography by Dan Jeffries.

2 Comments »

  • Theatre-goer said:

    Another great review, Donnchadh. Thank you. Agreed on most fronts!

  • Anon 2 said:

    Spot on.