Almeida Theatre, London – until 22 January 2022
Directed by Rupert Goold with a cast of highly talented young performers, this energetic production about teenage desire and the failure of parental direction is a rare musical choice for the Almeida, but one that amplifies the intimacy of the story and the characters’ complex anxieties. Based on a German play of the same name written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, the musical is a lively and often brutal statement on the stifling of youth culture.
What may begin as a typical High School drama set at two same-sex public institutions in the mould of Gossip Girl or many American teen movies like Cruel Intentions, becomes something far closer to Ibsen – a contemporary of Wedekind publishing his greatest psychological works around the same time as Spring Awakening.
The Almeida’s approach draws out a contrasting public face and need to maintain social polish with the raging emotional subtext of human relationships. As Ibsen fills his characters’ interior lives with acres of feeling, so too do Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater elicit the thrumming lust and confusion of young people looking for guidance as their bodies, thoughts and lives change, yet failing to find it in the external structures designed to protect and teach them.
Instead, they are cast into cavernous unknows where they must learn from each other while discovering that the adult world, which they are only just beginning to enter, is full of great and equally terrible things as their own reactions both awe and frighten them.
Like Ibsen’s creations, all these teenagers know is that nothing fits, so like Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West or even Halvard Solness they dream of a better, freer time all the while struggling against the confining reality of the one they are in. But, Sheik’s rock score and Sater’s lyrics gives the musical a modern grounding, blending a more current approach to language and linguistic structure with the traditional attitudes and restrictions against which the students chafe.
There is a strong sense of rebellion running through Goold’s new production staged in a fixed proscenium with raked steps that have become a key feature of modern musical and play reworkings. Steps create height and depth on small stages while offering far more interesting choreographic options – the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park used a similar stepped staging for Our Town, Evita and the emotional return of Jesus Christ Superstar after the first lockdown. Designed here by Miriam Buether the steps effortlessly merge the demands of changing scenic locations from classrooms to haylofts and even a graveyard with the school steps notion that has become a trademark of the high school genre used in everything from 10 Things I Hate About You to Glee, and although the tone here has a tragic inevitability, the symbolism of the stepped staging is a useful visual shorthand for an otherwise relatively sparse visual approach.
Goold employs this simplicity really effectively using accents like Nicky Gillibrand’s costume to hint at nineteenth-century uniforms for some characters with waistcoats and short jackets mixed with gymslips, hoodies and rebellious-goth-inspired schoolwear. It creates individuality for the dozen or so students, each departing from traditional uniform to differing degrees that reflects their personalities while underpinning the musical’s central notion that the young protagonists are dreaming of a free future where the imposed order and expectation of their parents’ generation will be overcome. Gillibrand captures exactly that in the costumes, merging tradition with a forward-looking consciousness.
Across the piece, this creates investment in the troubled and multifaceted lives of these classmates with Goold managing character distinction and depth where it’s needed, but also trusting the story and music to deliver bigger group numbers that showcase the general attitudes, objections and frustrations of this younger generation. It gives this production a double punch of emotional heft and an in-your-face ferocity that is hugely impactful in such a small space.
The most powerful effect comes from Lynne Page’s remarkable choreography that places the performers around the stage and uses the raked space with incredible invention. Students undulate down steps, skidding on their bottoms and hanging backwards as they fall in love (The Word of Your Body) and Page creates endlessly fascinating shapes with coordinated line-ups moving together in synchronised rhythmic packs either seated or travelling in unison around the stage. She brings an ordered chaos to some of the full company segments in which the characters’ angry rebellion create a punk madness.
This is often combined with Finn Ross’s chalk video design and animation projected across the stage that helps to create the buzz and disarray as physical performance and visual image create intensity. The show’s most memorable moment is certainly the outstanding Totally Fucked in Act Two using the full extent of the staircase staging to powerful effect as the cast fizz around it with a spectacular energy before stomping purposefully towards the audience in a single line as the song draws to its defiant and determined finale.
And while this dazzling version of Spring Awakening is an exciting place to be, it never relinquishes its emotional hold over the audience, using the up and down beats to hammer home the dangers of restricting the minds and bodies of teenagers, and giving them too little armour with which to face the challenges ahead. Adults in this reimagining are often caricatures with multiple roles played by the same two actors to emphasise the interchangeability of weak authority from the perspective of the muddled teenagers as well as the systemic failures to provide any form of sex education and guidance at the time when it is most necessary.
Catherine Cusack is known simply as ‘Adult Woman’ and Mark Lockyer as ‘Adult Man’ who between them play a raft of unpleasant and ineffectual grown-ups in more traditional nineteenth-century costume, neatly emphasising the stuffier rules and old-fashioned stilted lives of multiple parents, creepy mask-wearing teachers and, later in the story, a seedy backstreet practitioner. These are much bigger, often sillier performances than the rest of the cast, made to look purposefully ridiculous or authoritarian which just about stays on the right side of credible, reinforcing rather than distracting from the effect on their pupils.
With the tone set and these wider visual and contextual effects in place, Goold creates a place where this story can grow and slowly captivate the audience. There are a lot of characters, a tragic central love story between Wendla Bergmann and Malchior Gabor, a young man buckling under the pressure (Moritz Stiefel) and a number of other private crises. Sheik and Sater capture many of these subplots and interactions quite fleetingly and Spring Awakening asks a great deal of the viewer in the emotional impact of these impressions and sketches even though scenes often skip many months or make single references to personal circumstances that affect a minor character.
Across these, more collective strands emerge in those more personal stories. Several characters recall the simplicity of their earlier childhood which from their coming-of-age perspective seems suddenly romantic and blissful. This wistful longing couched in memory also echoes Ibsen, particularly in the tentative relationship between Wendla and Malchior who first met to play as innocent children, contrasting this with the new, more complex feeling growing between them. Ilse Neumann tries to draw Moritz to her using the same tactic, the long friendship between this foursome vital to the later turns of the plot as their connection to that shared past is permanently and brutally severed.
It is really exciting to see a large, relatively unknown cast create such a dynamic and affecting piece of theatre and, in adding this to the Almeida programme, it is really positive to see early career performers given the space to lead a show without needing a star name or two attached. Best known to regular theatregoers, Laurie Kynaston fills Malchior with a radical otherness, an intellectual and political philosopher waiting for his moment to make a stand in the mode of Enjolras from Les Miserables. He is initially more concerned with better worlds to come than the one he actually lives in but the rapidly developing relationship with Wendla brings him back to earth. Kynaston is really good at conveying that trajectory from theorist to a young man trying to put that into practice through his choice to live beyond societal expectation and use it to affect wider change. With a beautiful sorrow in his vocal quality, Kynaston finds all kinds of depth in Melchior as he tries to cling to his ideals despite their tragic outcome.
Amara Okereke matches him as the confused Wendla who is failed by her mother in the earliest moments of the show with disastrous consequences. There is such charm in Okereke’s performance that makes Wendla likeable and inexperienced but never naïve or silly, so her connection with Melchior develops organically from a shy flirtation to a very physical encounter which feels natural to them both and Wendla absorbs some of Melchior’s hope they can be free from shame. And great to see an Intimacy Director (Ita O’Brien) credited among the production team to support one the musical’s most important transitional moments.
Stuart Thompson brings lots of emotion to the pressured Moritz, struggling to reach adult expectations and consumed by what he sees as the closing of future pathways due to lack of academic attainment. The degradation of his mental health and movement beyond the help of his classmates makes him a lonely figure, and Thompson brings a weight of sadness to his trajectory and its aftermath. The leads are supported by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as Hanschen, Asha Banks as Thea, Taylor Bradshaw as Frank, Carly-Sophia Davies as artists’ muse Isla living in a bohemian exile, Kit Esuruoso as Otto, Bella Maclean as Martha who manages her domestic abuse story with care, Emily Ooi as Clara, Joe Pitts as Georg, Maia Tameakar as Anna and Zheng Xi Yong as Ernst. Together they are a strong ensemble, giving separate personalities to each of their characters but are equally adept as a dance and performance unit.
The Almeida may not have chosen a Christmas show this year but Spring Awakening is a glorious end to another strange and strained year for theatres in what is, nonetheless, becoming a wonderfully crowded market-place for impressive reworkings of well-known musicals. With its themes of throwing off the yoke of the past and dreaming of a better, fairer, more open life, the Almeida’s production offers a bittersweet hope for the future and in this very fine young cast they may have found it.
Spring Awakening is at the Almeida Theatre until 22 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
‘The in-your-face ferocity is hugely impactful in such a small space’: @culturalcap1 finds a ‘bittersweet hope for the future’ in @rupertgoold’s production of #SpringAwakening at @AlmeidaTheatre. #theatrereviews