Wet dreams and their discontents

A final bulletin from Berlin. Spring Awakening, the American musical which triumphed on Broadway, has settled into London's West End, so it seemed apt to see the play on which it's based - Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen. The musical is snappily staged, but it smooths out a brilliantly disconcerting play which is all jagged edges. As I had hoped, as produced by Claus Peymann at the Berliner Ensemble, it retains its potential to wound.

For the 19th century, the divide between childhood and adulthood was absolute. Work and wedlock, especially, plunged the young abruptly from one state to the other. Our own culture privileges adolescence, an infinitely extendable period which combines grown up desires with a youthful retreat from responsibility. In the musical, the emo numbers, breaking out of formal dialogue scenes, represent this arena of adolescence. For Peymann's cast, this in-between state is more perplexing - the boys especially, in their shorts and calf-length socks, seemed inappropriately marooned in childhood. All those knees are displayed like a vanished index of childhood.

The adolescent confusion scrawls over a memorably stark set by Achim Freyer. Swivelling black and white panels rotate to carve up the space - closing to form a high wall or opening to reveal a wider world through the slats. They offer moments of release - we first see schoolboy protagonists Melchior and Moritz rushing through them as if cresting the spars of a threshing machine.

What else does the play offer? Little comfort, as you'll see after the click:

Although the play kicks against the constricting bourgeois home, there is no naturalistic clutter here. We see very few props (though there's a heavily sugared fluted ring sponge). Everything is black and white - even schoolbooks have immaculate white covers - except for isolated splashes of colour like leafy branches or the red flowers that drop into a boy's grave (pointing, perhaps, to the poppy fields of the first world war). The austere staging has no music, but a chill wind blows through it, a sound of gathering wind and storm.

The Berliner Ensemble's theatre certainly focuses attention on actors - it fosters intimacy. Peymann exploits this quality, having Melchior and Moritz perch on the very front of the stage to discuss wet dreams and their discontents, sharing their confusion with the audience, bringing home that state of teenage ferment. Melchior is the dangerously bright one, while Moritz finds everything difficult. The adult world offers few signposts when it comes to dealing with feelings, dealing with girls - Melchior's friendship with Wendla also spills into dangerous territory for which they don't have enough words.

Sabin Tambrea's lanky Melchior has a keen profile, hair slickly parted to the side. He's the scythe to his friend Moritz's sponge - Lukas Rüppel is a soft redhead, turning crimson and white with effort and shame. Humiliated at school, he is the play's first victim, and there's something so poignant about him, a young man who lives and dies in short trousers.

The musical softens Melchior's relationship with Wendla - composer Duncan Sheik told me that they couldn't envisage as their hero 'a bratty kid who rapes a girl.' It feels like a fudge. The scene in which Wendla urges Melchior to whip her may begin in laughter but soon becomes excessive - a brutal punching as the set panels turn blood red. However questing Melchior's mind, his emotions are unable to keep pace. The later scene in which Wendla becomes pregnant is unequivocally rape, despite its brief, tender aftermath - Peymann snaps the lights off and changes scene before we get a chance to become wistful.

Wendla has an affectionate, teasing relationship with her mother, who coaxes and fusses and is driven to distraction. She is wholly unequipped to explain the facts of life to her persistent daughter. Despite shoving Wendla's head under her apron and stumbling towards an explanation of adult love, she balks at her sheer inadequacy for the task. She can't deal calmly with the girl's pregnancy because she can barely acknowledge the idea. Similarly, Melchior's liberal mother is visibly careworn with the effort to do the right thing, and we only see Moritz's father at the boy's funeral, sobbing inconsolably like Stan Laurel, ludicrous in grief.

Peymann cuts the play's early scenes with the teachers, making the flustered parents as much victims of their culture as are their kids. When the school governors do appear in the second act it is as callous grotesques, slathered with white greasepaint, smutched with ashy black - as if adulthood has all but mummified them. Plinths attached to their shoes lend an unjustified monumental authority; they are nonetheless all too ready to break into schoolyard jeering.

Planning to see the production? Look away now, because there's a spoiler coming. Just before the final scene, the set collapses into shards, a confusion of gravestones on the wide, deep stage. Here Melchior meets a mysterious masked man (a figure scrapped in the musical's vapid ending). He was played by Wedekind in the first production, and here by another playwright, Manfred Karge (best known in Britain for two plays staged here in the 1980s - Man to Man, which featured Tilda Swinton, and The Conquest of the South Pole). Karge makes a disconcertingly urbane figure, a scarlet-lined coat, flower in his buttonhole, mask and cane. This is the most sophisticated - over-sophisticated, even - vision of adulthood that we've yet seen. Is this the future towards which Melchior is stumbling? Are there any other options? The Ensemble's comfortless production offers little cause for optimism.

April 30, 2009 11:37 PM | | Comments (4) |

4 Comments

Neandellus, it's always marvellous to find a non-spam message about hypertrophied genitalia in the inbox. Long may you revel in eternal youth (though, as your tone suggests, that may not be total fun. Eek, I'm getting flashbacks to adolesence...).

The Melbourne Spring Awakening sounds way too fuzzy. And you're right, the Impressionists reference is plain wrong. Something far scuzzier and less obviously successful is needed. I guess Wedekind would have been thinking of the artistic chancers and boho lechers among the Munich avant garde? Impressionists are far too well established to point up Ilse's confusion about her escape and exploitation.

They've shut it down? Good to hear. I still think Franzen got it right about that(eg "A team of grown-ups creates a musical whose main selling point is teen sex..." ).

But, of course, the musical has nothing to do with the productions we saw.

More grown up?! Nonsense! You should have read the half-a-review a wrote. Read it, you should have! It was all, "O, Handy Rillow, we barely knew you knowing yourself", and stuff of that kind.

I'm definitely still in my over-long youth. As near as I can tell, it might well be eternal.

The more I think about it though, the more I think that my problems with the play were more to do with issues specific to this production. Specifically its 'yearning' quality. Just one example: Hayloft changed the script so Ilse claims to have been with the 'Impressionists' rather than at the 'Phallopia' or 'Priapus Club'. Instead of being pursued by Fehrendorf, she was pursued by Lautrec (never mind that the real Lautrec is meant to have had hypertrophied genitals). When I think of the Impressionists I think of soft-focus, light, colour, memory and, well, impressions. Renoir and chocolate boxes. Cultural nostalgia. Which, as you say, probably didn't make the thing spiky enough.

Thanks for such thought-provoking stuff, Neandellus. And interesting that two productions on opposite sides of the globe can find similar solutions, in part, to this tricky play.

I'm not convinced that relevance is as absolute a quality as you suggest. To put it baldly, a good production will always seem more relevant than a bad one, whatever the play, because it is alive.

You're right to say, of course, that seeming modernity of subject matter won't in itself save a play from the museum. But just because we exalt adolesence and seek to extend it well into middle age (remember the brief concept of 'middle youth' in the style mags a few years back?), doesn't mean that the transition into adulthood has become any easier. the confusions surrounding our attempts to take our place in the adult world are as painful as ever, and even if the dilemmas Wedekind stages are not precisely those of our own age, they can still function as a prism of these anxieties.

Without having seen the Hayloft production, I suspect you're absolutely right to bridle against its nostalgia. This isn't a sentimental play, and the more stark and jagged the production, the stronger. I don't want to continue belabouring the unfortunate musical version on a day when it announced the premature end to its London run; but it was in the end too consoling, too gloopy a show - more The Lovely Bones than Wedekind. Cheering up? Pah! I want a show that prods my lingering fears and neuroses...

Of course, Neandellus, you may simply be more of a grown-up than I'll ever be...

Hi David, thanks for dropping by the other day. Glad you found it interesting!

Also interesting is your review of Spring Awakening. Last weekend I was struggling with my own thoughts about this play. The Hayloft Project has just staged it (re-staged, apparently) but I discovered that there was little I wanted to say about the whole thing. Given that I’d only just written about an Hayloft production and I really only have time for one piece a week, I put it aside and wrote about something else. But I’m pleased to be able to come back to it here (not much has been written about Hayloft’s S.A., it being overshadowed somewhat by their concurrent production of Three Sisters).

Reading your piece I see a number of similarities between the Claus Peymann production you saw and what I saw: both productions cut the early scenes with the teachers; were free of naturalisitic clutter; had the children/adults emerge into a stark, bright world; and whereas characters in Peymann’s second act were “slathered with white greasepaint, smutched with ashy black”, the Hayloft Project's cast, all in white undergarments, themselves in the 'blood' of Moritz and Gwenda, which was all over the floor.

The first big difference that jumps out at me is the use of sound. There was a lot of padding in the Hayloft prod. which I thought loaded the whole thing down with nostalgia. This was reinforced by a sort of sprite-like enthusiasm, wistful monologues and angsty laments. It was, I guess, a nostalgia I didn’t identify with.

The nostalgia irritated me no end. I just don’t think this play is relevant to the modern condition. As you point out in your review, we no longer have the absolute and arbitrary divide between childhood and adulthood. We have the long and still lengthening interval of superaclivity as a buffer: adolescence/youth.

In the Hayloft production, the ‘kids’ begin the play in pidgenholes, at the back of the stage. This is, I guess, childhood: neat, structured, designed by others. As they are ‘awakened’, they break down the divisions in that ordered world and move forward out of the structure into the bright, open mainstage, whereupon, blood is spilt. I didn’t see much of an ‘in-between stage’.

I can see how the play has *seeming* suitability: teen suicide, masturbation, rape, issues of consent and responsibility, sexual education, gay spring awakenings and teen pregnancy. It sounds modern. But it’s really only Wedekind’s openness about these issues that makes the play seem contemporary, not the way in which he deals with them.

Anyway, cheers for the link,

A.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on April 30, 2009 11:37 PM.

But first, the interval. Hungry? was the previous entry in this blog.

Cut, but not forgotten is the next entry in this blog.

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