Adapted by Anya Reiss
A Headlong / West Yorkshire Theatre / Nuffield co-production
Directed by Ben Kidd
The Nuffield Theatre
27th March 2014, 19.30
The play was written by Frank Wedekind in 1891, and first performed in 1906. This was explosive stuff in 1906 Germany, and not performed in English until 1917, when it ran for one heavily-censored performance in New York. It was not performed in English uncensored until 1978. It was adapted as a musical in 2009. This version is by Anya Reiss, still only twenty-two herself, and is set in the world of Google, Facebook and Twitter. It’s had five star reviews from The Sunday Times and The Financial Times, so they needn’t worry about my views which are to follow …
It’s hard to imagine what it was like in German in 1906. Designed to shock? And it succeeded, but also heavy-handed and didactic, I’d think, or ‘declamatory and moralistic’ as the director says. It’s considered a seminal European play, but it puzzles me how influential a play can be that was hardly ever performed in its own era, and when it was, was heavily cut. Perhaps it was widely read, rather than seen.
Wedekind influenced Brecht, which to me means there are a great number of short staccato scenes. Wedekind also expressed quite a bit about Oedipal urges, and was doing it well before Freud got going. So it was innovative and important. I also believe those far more knowledgeable reviewers who say this is the best that Spring Awakening has ever been done. I have no yardstick, but I can see how laptops, selfies, Face Time, extreme porn sites all add to the necessary teenage angst.
But while it is innovative and controversial, is it a good piece of drama? Never having seen a Brecht play I’ve liked, I’m the wrong judge. There’s always an issue with adults playing teenagers too. The device here was to have them switch roles to play each others’ parents, and to hammer home the fictive aspect by having the “teen characters” dispute which of them would be playing “the adult characters” in the next scene. I liked that. I liked the Headlong trademark use of projected pre-recorded videos, though my companion thought Ilsa’s Face Time conversation with Moritz was being done live with her camera phone. It didn’t quite synch, but she thought that was delay. I thought it was an incredibly accomplished acting job of matching your pre-recorded self. But maybe a pink iPhone 5 is that good.
Melchior (Oliver Johnstone) and Wendla (Aoife Duffin)
The stagecraft, music and movement was excellent, as were the performances. There were some set pieces I admired … setting out the school chairs, Hans (Ekow Quartey) switching to Deputy Head Mr Sonnestisch was superb, and I was delighted he had the chance because as Hans he was well named, having a hands-on role: he had to simulate masturbation a lot. When Melchior (Oliver Johnstone) loses his temper and throws the chairs around, it is well-staged. The scenes with Melchior and Wendla (Aoife Duffin) are genuinely moving (when he hits her; when he rapes her). Aoife Duffin manages to look gawkily teenage and gave an outstanding performance, though not being accent-deaf, I wondered what an Irish accent was doing among this lot of Southern English kids. It would make sense if her Mum, even though ostensibly played by another kid, were Irish too, but she’s not. The Irish accent in a home where sexual reproduction is never properly discussed would be an enhancement, gaining depth from the Philomena effect,
I had issues with both the play, and the dialogue though. It sounded as staccato as the intercutting of scenes at times, and “fuck” especially early on had invisible inverted commas hanging round it. The dialogue didn’t sound natural. The inverted commas might reflect that these are middle-class kids at an academic school with nice traditional blazers, but I think middle-class kids can eff and blind with the accomplished ease of urban yoof. The original play was set in a heavily-academic German gymnasium and kids committed suicide with appalling regularity in that late 19th century competitive system. This is reflected in the current script, though perhaps doesn’t sit easily with contemporary British schools, even ones with smart blazers with crests.
At the end, by which time Moritz (Bradley Hall) and Wendla are ghosts, the play is windily wordy which would, I’m sure, be a case of being true to the original. ‘Right and wrong is like a ven diagram’ or possibly ‘Morality is like a ven diagram’ or maybe it was ‘Life is like a ven diagram’ is an atrocious line whichever of the three it was. They were never called ven diagrams in my day, though nowadays they talk about them in primary schools. I had to think, ‘What is a ven diagram?’ The costumes didn’t seem that 2014 either. My companion questioned the costumes, saying the anoraks and backpacks at the start looked too uncool, and that the blazers accentuated the “adults playing teenagers” aspect.
Near the end, there’s a gay scene between Hans and Ernst which appears to have parachuted in from nowhere. The original play was no doubt longer … this is a pacey 100 minutes with no interval … and perhaps built up to it. This had no indication that it was coming, and they had a couple of mild snogs. Hans was earlier aroused by watching Othello (the 1960s Olivier film was projected) and I had assumed that Desdemona was the object of his desire, but maybe it was the Moor. It’s as if Wedekind (and his adapter) thought, we’ve mentioned rape, masturbation, teenage pregnancy, abortion, casual sex, electric dildos, incest, child beating, so what aspect of teen sexuality haven’t we mentioned? Oh, shit! We forgot homosexuality, better shoehorn a quick male-to-male scene in before the end. Ernst reminded me that “earnest” as in the Oscar Wilde play was supposed to be a code word for “gay” in the 1890s. Was it in Germany too? As for Hans, everytime I’ve typed it WordPress’s auto-spelling has tried to change it to “hands.”
Martha (Claudia Grant), Wendla (Aofin Duffin), Thea (Ruby Thomas)
The audience is important to the play. The ideal audience would be parents of teenagers and teachers. The teachers scene, already mentioned, is one of the high points of the script, taking place after Moritz’s suicide. Hans is the deputy head, and Ilsa (Daisy Whalley) switches to adult mode and becomes his form teacher, Miss Twister. Their debate on how to open a window with Elf ‘n’ Safe Tee regulations is priceless stuff. The play is provocative and the aim of the production is surely to provoke those coping with teenagers on a daily basis. As it was, they were preaching somewhat to the choir as most of the audience on a Thursday night were either the teens’ own generation or their grandparents’ generation. Believe me, modern grandparents will side with the teenagers, not their parents. The parents are the issue in the play. None more so than Melchior’s mum, engrossed in a phone conversation, as she says a cheerful “Goodnight sweetheart” as a dazed, disheveled Wendla leaves the house after being raped by her son. Wendla’s mum, Mrs Bergmann (Thea switching to adult) is central, as a liberal parent but still a source of misinformation on sex and love.
The Nuffield still can’t pack them in. This show was enlivened by a large party of young people (Sixth formers?) and their very positive reactions were great and added to the atmosphere. But they were sitting further back. Otherwise I felt sorry for the cast acting out teenage sex fantasies and discussions to a couple of rows of retired people nearer the front, especially as the lady next to us fell asleep two minutes in and slept through a lot of loud music. For the cast, a Nuffield issue is that because of the rake, most people avoid the front few rows where you have to crane to look up at the stage, and start choosing seats a few rows back, leaving a hole with a few people right in front of the stage. In its early days that area was used as a projecting stage sometimes. I haven’t seen that done for a while.
As ever, we recalled when you couldn’t get in for Nuffield productions of Taming of The Shrew and Comedy of Errors, and every seat in the balcony was full for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre Stages. Since then the university has grown hugely in size, and Solent University has been added in the same city. But the audience inexorably shrinks.
Headlong always use recorded music well. Here it’s a major part of the production. I rant on and on about productions using “found” music, then in the programme crediting the third assistant hairdresser and the guy who footed the ladder for the scene painter, but never crediting the music. Full marks to Headlong here. They devote a full page to the music credits, dividing it between “Interpolated music in order of appearance” and “Incidental music in order of appearance.” This should be a template for every other theatre company. The programme has two first-rate articles, one on Wedekind and one by Anya Reiss, the adaptor.