FringeReview UK 2016
Brief Hiatus produce gripping theatre, but they are also extending my library. I bought three volumes of Howard Barker plays as a result of seeing their production of ‘Gertrude – The Cry’, and now I’ve got hold of both Frank Wedekind’s and Anya Reiss’ versions of ‘Spring Awakening’.
Frank Wedekind was very much a Modernist writer. He wrote honestly and unambiguously about sex, in an age when most people cloaked the subject in layers of euphemism – if they didn’t ignore it altogether. Indeed, the whole plot of ‘Spring Awakening’ revolves around the lack of sex education for pubescent youngsters, and the tragic results that follow from that policy.
But – although he was forward-looking, Wedekind was writing over a century ago, which means that his work is inevitably a bit dated, and the dialogue can come over as rather stiff. So it’s a very wise choice by Brief Hiatus to give us Anya Reiss’ 2014 version. An important and groundbreaking play has been adapted by a talented contemporary writer.
Reiss has kept very closely to the essential plot elements of ‘Spring Awakening’, but she’s brought the story up to date with modern technology – mobile phones, the internet and Google. She’s also cut down the cast by doubling up on a number of the roles. This allows a smaller Company to take on the play, as well as showing up the contradictions and opposites that one actor can portray.
Rosanna Bini, for example, was totally believable as Ilse, the loose-living free spirit who sleeps around with artists and photographers; but then she would switch character – instantly, holding her whole body stiffly and giving her voice much more authority – to become Miss Twister, one of the teachers at the teenagers’ school. Occasionally these transformations were carried out with small costume changes, a dressing gown for example, but mostly by the actor simply changing voice and posture. A minimalist approach to character that defined the whole production.
Because minimalism is a hallmark of Brief Hiatus’ work. They had reversed the usual acting area at The Lantern, to produce a narrow stage, just wide enough for eight stackable chairs to be placed side by side in a line, and about twice as deep as it was wide. Nothing else, apart from a couple of microphones on stands, and a jumble of schoolchildren’s possessions – bits of clothing, books and folders, mobile phones – scattered around the floor.
The perspective that this layout produced was remarkable. We could look at a whole school form seated in class, all across the back wall, and then someone would bring a microphone right to the front of the stage, literally a foot from the audience, and make a speech or address a meeting. At the start, the chairs were scattered randomly throughout the stage, with heaps of clothing on each. Then the eight actors – four women and four men – came on, just in their white underwear, and started dressing. Pulling on socks, trousers, blouses, all the while miming cleaning their teeth and checking the clock, until finally they’re ready. They took the chairs down to the rear, and there they were, sitting in school. That’s minimalism for you. I know exactly what my classroom looked like – I could almost see the blackboard …
The performances were powerful, too. The whole cast managed to produce that jerkiness of movement and speech that distinguishes children from older people, so that almost immediately we saw the actors as completely believable teenagers. On the occasions when they had to morph into adults, it was taking on that very stiffness I mentioned earlier that helped us to accept the change in age and status. Real ensemble playing.
Wedekind wanted his plays to get across a message to his audience. To provoke them. He wanted theatre to be able to criticise and expose a corrupt society or social system. If that meant breaking the illusion of reality by coming out of character for a speech, then so be it. In this he was very like Bertolt Brecht, although he was writing almost a quarter of a century before Brecht. Brief Hiatus have followed that tradition in this production, with characters occasionally speaking directly to the audience.
In Wedekin’s original, Moritz and Melchior are classmates. Moritz is very insecure, terribly stressed about his studies but also completely ignorant of the facts of life. Melchior knows all about the mechanics of sex, and writes a long letter to his friend, explaining them in words and drawings. The letter is discovered, and Moritz is made to feel so guilty that he kills himself. Melchior is blamed for his classmate’s death, and he’s expelled from school. But in the meantime he’s also got another classmate, Wendla, pregnant. Her mother had given her no information about reproduction, so she didn’t know how to conduct herself sexually – “The stork brings the baby when two people love each other very much”. Wendla has a botched abortion and dies too, leaving Melchior condemned for the loss of two lives.
Reiss’ contemporary version keeps the main story elements, but the teenagers are constantly texting and Skyping each other. Melchior encourages Moritz to Google the sexual information he’s looking for, and guides him towards internet sex sites. After Moritz’s death, Melchior is accused by his teacher Miss Twister – “…relentless onslaught of emails including explicit descriptions of fantasies and links to illicit sites … Cyber bullying.”
But the boy’s response – which his teachers don’t want to hear – points up society’s double standards – “It’s out there. I didn’t send him to illegal sites. I didn’t tell him things that weren’t true. It’s out there. It’s not made by me, I didn’t invent this stuff. You made all this, you made this world then I’m punished for living in it?”
Good casting, especially for the central characters. Ben Baeza is dark haired, slightly stocky. He plays Moritz as anxious, preoccupied, rather central European. David Fenne as Melchior is by contrast taller, with longish fair hair, almost blonde, and an athletic looking physique. He looks rather Aryan, or like an English public schoolboy. (who remembers the rebellious teenage character from ‘If’, on the school roof with his machine gun?). Rebecca Elizabeth was a tragic Wendla – an innocent being pushed into adulthood too young; wanting so, so much to believe her mother’s lies and evasions, and ultimately paying the price
I mentioned Brecht and Wedekind earlier as sounding a bit – stiff. That’s not a word you could use for this production. This production is high-energy theatre from start to finish. Angry theatre. In-your-face theatre. I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-that theatre.
Near the start the class are on a visit to an art gallery. We hear the gallery art historian’s explanation – “to the left now there is Palma Vecchio’s Venus, painted in 1520 … nudes, in particular those painted under the guise of mythological figures had become a popular subject during the Italian Renaissance”. But the monologue gets hijacked – “… from the lighter brush strokes around the vagina we can discern that Venus’ pussy is in fact wet. It’s fucking glistening, viewer”. As we hear all this, we’re watching Hans sitting on a chair in his white underpants, masturbating furiously with what’s obviously an enormous erection. He’s in the gallery lavatory gazing at an illustrated art catalogue. Edd Berridge plays Hans with a manic intensity, and it’s a wonderful swipe at the pretensions of a lot of art history. There’s nothing stiff (well, not much) about this performance …
Later Berridge changes role to become Mr Sonnestisch, the unforgiving teacher who condemns Melchior. He plays the teacher completely straight, upholding morality, but we can’t help remembering that Sonnestisch himself was probably in that gallery lavatory, years ago. Maybe it’s the repression of that memory that’s making him so unforgiving now.
Very competent staging. Imaginative lighting helped convey mood, and provided a route into the afterlife for the two who die. One of my favourite moments was when Rosanna Bini as Ilse was talking late at night on Skype. She sat cross-legged on the floor with her laptop open in front of her, and the screen light cast an enormous shadow of her onto the back wall. She was here, but also there. Real, but also a fleeting, insubstantial image. It illustrated the internet perfectly.
It illustrated Conor Baum’s skill as a director, too. As they did in ‘Gertrude – The Cry’, the company manage to create a credible reality out of just a bare room and a few chairs. In the last scene the actors came on in their white underwear again. They stood along the walls and became gravestones in a cemetery. Because the actors believed in the graveyard, we as an audience chose to believe in it as well, and so the graveyard rose up before us. The magic of theatre never ceases to astound me.