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Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Spring Awakening

SPRING AWAKENING by Frank Wedekind. Adapted by Simon Stone presented by The HAYLOFT PROJECT and B Sharp at Downstairs Belvoir.

From the Director’s Notes:

“I put on classics as a means of expressing the timelessness of particular aspects of the human condition.” Further: “My job, as I see it, both in adaptation and direction is to strip away anything that gets in the way of this realization – anything that no longer speaks to us today – then build up a structure that facilitates the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of a piece that may in its original form have seemed antiquated” – Simon Stone

The Set design (Adam Gardnir) consists of what I took to be 9 chicken coops/cages. In each was a thoughtfully crafted installation relating to the world of the occupiers eg. the “coop” of Moritz was stacked with books etc related to his pre-occupation of academic success. Wendla’s coop was set in a hay loft (later she has her first sexual experience there). Each character is wonderfully demarcated in this way. It is a pleasure to look at it and solve. The Costume design (Mel Page) has a beautiful colour palate across the characters, but is not as easily read. The period look of Moritz in contrast to Rilow dressed in a “hoodie”. Other costume choices provoked further puzzlement. The second act had them out of their coops onto a lime green floor with multi-coloured straight lines zigging and zagging in white singlets and underpants (Later be-spatted with fake blood). The Lighting design (Niklas Pajanti) is detailed and remarkably beautiful. The Sound design is also well conceived if not always integrated to the needs of the actor’s textual audibility. If this were part of the present Sydney Art Biennale it would be an interesting piece of Installation Art. As an aid to facilitating the play or even this adaptation of it, it is a conceit: (an elaborate metaphor, a fanciful notion.)

The Adaptation: reducing this three act 19th century (1891) play of enormous cultural and dramatic writing significance to two half hour acts and shrinking the cast from that of 30 men and 7 women to 7 actors is no small feat. There are some fine exchanges in the writing but there is also some diminishing of the original’s intent and density of objective. There is in this adaptation only an essence of the enormous achievement of Wedekind. I hardly understand what Mr Stone regards as antiquated or obstructional in the original, in what is still regarded as a play of great confrontational sensibilities and still daring explorations in style. Not many contemporary writers dare to explore such subject matter and form.

What is most disturbing is the direction. Mr Stone has encouraged his actors to play in a physically over caricatured style. Appearing as grotesque gangling teenagers eg in the second act Amanda Falson as Ilse is encouraged to gyrate with the looseness of a deranged strung puppet. Vocally they are urged to shout with unbridled passion. Angus Grant, playing Melchior, plays his scenes in his coop red faced with bulging neck veins and stretched vocal chords, giving himself further obstacles for vocal communication by banging the metal wall and floor of his coop. (When he and the others are not attempting to be heard over the Sound Design). (Thank goodness for the restrained relief, demonstrating, that vocal pitch is a better choice than volume for communication, that Ben Hjorth gives in his rendition of Rilow’s frightening masturbatory fantasy speech in the first act) The cacophony of the noise that the cast and sound design render under the guidance of their director reduce the text to such an obscure phenomenon that no communication other than a belligerent assault on the audiences senses and empathy can result. “Enjoyment and understanding” are not part of the affect that the performance has on its audience. This classic play is obliterated by this production and serves as an example that “Form” does not always provide “as much meaning as content.”

There is an air about this director, a feeling of a need to be an auteur of the theatre. A puppet master with the intellectual conceit to believe it his mission to save the classic repertoire from obscurity by overloading it with directorial imperatives that mostly draw attention to themselves instead of facilitating the play. I can’t help but echo Murray Bail who recently was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s an awful era in a sense because it’s an age of narcissism… All this ‘look at me’ stuff.” One senses it in Brendan Cowell’s performance in the Bell HAMLET, here in Simon Stone’s SPRING AWAKENING and in Benedict Andrew’s productions of the classics. This is in strong contrast to Ostermier’s work that I recently observed in his production of A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at the Adelaide Arts festival. Theatrical intelligence and experimentation with form that also served the play’s narrative and intentions.. The writer was more than mouthed respect and admiration.

This company under the direction of Simon Stone have recently worked on a second project CHEKOV RE-CUT: PLATONOV. Despite my experience of SPRING AWAKENING I am curious to see what the direction or cumulative knowledge the company would have taken with this relatively primitive play of Chekov. It is hardly a classic and may bear some value in being re-cut.

PS. I recently enjoyed very much the Musical adaptation of SPRING AWAKENING on Broadway.

Playing now until 13 July at Downstairs Belvoir.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.
Full Price $29, Concession $23, Group Bookings $25, Cheap Tuesdays $10 minimum – one hour before.
Performance Times Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday – Saturday 8.15pm, Sunday 5.15pm


2 replies to “Spring Awakening”

  1. hey kevin, i think you might be being a little mean to benno here. i truly believe that p white would have cried with joy to have seen ‘sarsparilla’. if you read his letters and the wonderful marr biog they are full of references to productions that he felt didn’t go far enough and misunderstood his theatrical intentions. i believe him (benno…well yes and p white) to be one of the great people of our theatre.

    many people felt similarly (tho i’m not accusing you of this) about barrie k’s visionary ‘mourning becomes electra’ – the greatest piece of theatre (with the possible exception of ‘lost echo’ that i have seen at the stc – or any australian state theatre for that matter. i know the experiments are frustrating sometimes, and overdone and all that – god knows i have been guilty of the same – but could we not keep our eye on the brass ring that is being grabbed for? it is the only way our theatre will move forward, the only way we will end this moribund subscriber-driven drivel that we are all force-fed 90% of our working and viewing lives.

    ‘look at me’ is an easy way to characterise a vision that is, almost always, a much more complicated matrix. it is also an easy way for the mature to dismiss the young (and let me position myself amongst the mature here – let he who is without sin etc… i plead for tolerance here, for ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and for all critics to cease and desist from layering artists’ intentions with suppositions that are, at best, impossible to divine.

    dislike the work by all means, that is a right all of us may exercise, but let’s stop making statements about what the intentions behind the work are. all we can know and all we should judge is what we see.

    intentionality is for the courts.

    with great respect, tom healey

  2. Tom, Have you seen the Sydney version of Spring Awakening? It is a very different take from what I can gather from the Melbourne review I read. The quotes are from the Director’s notes on his intentions. Unfortunately Simon hasn’t achieved them and this is what I read and saw. There was no divining.

    I agree that Sarsparilla was the best of the Benedict classics. But I do remember his Dream, his Three Sisters and his Life is a Dream as well. I am not attempting to be mean just rigorous. I note that the Ostermier CAT is my experience of a great example of what Benedict etc may be aiming at and that as a model of respect for all parts of the collaboration there it is. Please move the theatre forward but if you make an intention statement it should respect the writer and attempt to include that in the aspiration as well.

    The re-invention of the wheel can also be tedious.

    Kevin J.

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