Spring Awakening, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – review

Five years after the undeservedly brief West End run of Duncan Sheik’s musical version comes the most thrilling adaptation of Spring Awakening I have ever seen, with play and characters alike full of sound and fury, not least fury that they signify nothing.

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play indicts the sexual repression of German culture at the time, with ignorance leading to excessive fantasies and acts of self-discovery among teenagers. The brilliance of Anya Reiss’s contemporary update lies partly in its recognition that ignorance need not stem from an absence of information. These teens Google, Skype, watch online porn and so forth, and, as the old joke has it, are far better informed but none the wiser. For none of this instruction comes from the responsible adults, their parents and teachers. It is another stroke of genius to have the youths don grown-up clothing to play these figures: they criticise each other, yet come head-on against the same impulses to avoid or sidestep matters.

This, too, is understandable: homosexuality, sado-masochism, rape, abortion and suicide among a group of 14-year-olds would no doubt be unpalatably strong fare even for many adults in 21st-century Britain, never mind the 19th-century Germany in which the play premiered. And yet our deepest instincts remain with the youngsters facing this conspiracy of condescension, and rightly so.

Ben Kidd’s touring production (currently running at co-producer Nuffield Theatre in Southampton) brims with the Headlong company’s trademark chutzpah as the cast of eight endlessly reshape – and reshape themselves through – Colin Richmond’s playground setting. The central trio of Aoife Duffin (Wendla, under-informed about sex, abortion), Bradley Hall (Moritz, academic and peer pressure, suicide) and Oliver Johnstone (Melchior, intelligence but no attachment, rape) are only first among equals in the company. (Roger Allam also makes an audio-only appearance as a libidinous art-gallery guide recording.)

The ending, with its immense store of youthful fire in search of a direction and finding only the admission that there is none, is strongly reminiscent of the same moment in some of Simon Stephens’ teen dramas. Reiss, only a couple of years out of her own teens, articulates it all with insight to match her empathy.

Until April 5; then to Cambridge Arts Theatre, Richmond Theatre and more, headlong.co.uk

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