‘Spring Awakening’ exploded onto stages in 2006, with its mix of dark coming-of-age themes and gritty pop/folk rock score and swept the Tony Awards that year, with nominations and wins for almost every category. With music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Steven Sater and a book Sater adapted from the 1891 novel by Frank Wedekind, ‘Spring Awakening’ explores the lives of a group of adolescents, as they struggle to understand the world around them.
There is not a lot that is especially subtle about ‘Spring Awakening’. In fact, from the opening refrain of ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ the audience is so buried under the exposition of the shows themes (sexuality, dangers of restricting information, education, parenting, suicide, power, corruption, religion … etc.) that it takes a little while for the plot to actually work its way out and for the characters to be given a chance to settle and establish themselves.
Moreton Bay Theatre Company have taken steps to add some layers of depth to the production. Originally set in late 19th-century Germany, this version has been cleverly moved into a uniquely dystopian world. Drawing heavily on inspiration from sources such as George Orwell and Margaret Attwood, this ‘Spring Awakening’ has a feeling of being settled in comfortably against shows like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
Director Pat James has created a space that felt industrial, fabricated, and as if it wasn’t supposed to feel that way at all. Intelligent touches sharpen the story and bring it firmly into our time; the security camera positioned over the doorway that was occasionally moved off kilter by the young cast so they could pass through unseen; the tree (a significant feature in the original concept) is now metal with lights sunken into it and deliberately artificial and cold; the uniforms with their military styled epaulettes (for the boys, the girls are given oversized green shirts that robbed them of shape and gender); and even the cane in the classroom being replaced with a more sinister taser. All of this combines to give a fresh take on ‘Spring Awakening’, with a current and immediate feel.
Taking all of this into account, however, there could have been more of it. Interactions with the security camera only happened twice throughout the show, and could have been a more significant part of the narrative. Watchful, authoritative technology could have featured more heavily and the religious iconography could have underpinned more of the production. James began to wonderfully delve into a new world, and it would have been so exciting to see this taken further.
Direction of the show had some wonderful stylised moments, and largely played up the teen angst of the narrative. There is space to back some of this off at the beginning of the show, to give everyone room to grow towards their inevitable endings. A lot of the production was similarly one-noted, characters yelling all of their lines to show dominance, or being physically twisted in anxiety and panic and there was absolutely scope to play with this more. Another interesting point was the accent work, sung with American accents, but most of the dialogue was Australian, with the occasional word or phrase clearly switching to American. If a choice was going to be made, it needed to be clear and concise, as the odd changes were jarring and pulled the audience out of the story.
Choreography throughout by Maureen Bowra, Taylah McLennan, and Pat James had some huge impact. Numbers like ‘Totally Fucked’, ‘The Bitch of Living, and ‘My Junk’ were spectacularly high energy and had clearly been rehearsed consistently. Alternatively there were also some numbers that were overchoreographed, that had too much business going on and robbed the scenes of their emotional and connective impact. Overall though, Bowra, McLennan, and James have done a fantastic job working with the young cast, especially finding ways to balance the differing skill levels to make something cohesive and clean.
Musical Direction by Melissa Beilby was consistently tightly drilled and well put together. The cast, not all being the most powerful of singers, came together to showcase the amazing harmonies present in the score with stunning clarity. The sound of the full ensemble filled the room effortlessly, highlighting Beilby’s experience working with choirs, and was an absolute show highlight.
Unfortunately, the sound balance often detracted from her excellent work, as solo lines disappeared under the volume of the chorus, and there were consistent problems with the foldback as the singers would often move off tempo from the backing tracks. None of this is a reflection on Beilby’s Musical Direction or the ensemble’s capability, they righted themselves each time, but it is hoped that these things will be resolved as the season progresses.
In a dystopian near-future there must be a figurehead to rally behind. Daniel Radlein’s Melchior is this in spades. He brought the confident, charismatic, swagger that is so necessary to making the character likeable, and balanced it out against a self righteousness that was sometimes difficult to swallow. The ‘scene’ with Wendla (those who know the show will know the moment) is particularly hard to watch as Radlein brings both an overt knowingness to his actions, and she is so obviously out of her depth. At the same time, he cleverly brings a childlike innocence and yearning into the privacy of the moment which helps ride the balance between unease and understanding for the audience. It is the work of an extremely talented actor and Brisbane audiences should watch eagerly for what he does next.
Audrey Rose brought a charming girl-next-door energy to Wendla, mixed naturally with a precociousness and earnest drive to understand more about herself, and the world around her. Rose grounded Wendla in her character arc, showing clear growth and a beautiful dichotomy between her internal struggle and her external joy. Couple the ease of her stagecraft against the beauty of her vocals, and the audiences embraced her as one of the favourites of the night. Arguably the most power moments are after Wendla’s death, when she comes out with her marker and is so still it’s eerie to witness.
As Moritz, Matthew Bapty brought a hunched, broken energy to the role. From the start he was on edge, physically shackled under the weight of expectations and workload. From the outset it seemed that his character was always going to end up in the grave, and he had very little room to explore the conflicts within. The rare moments where he smiled and laughed with Melchior let him suddenly relax and stand upright. Momentarily free of the burdens that plagued him. It would have elevated his already excellent performance if there had been more of this given throughout the production, but audiences were still treated to a committed performance full of strong choices and bold action.
The highlight of the show, hands down, is Tallis Tutunoa’s performance as Ilse. Her voice is divine, and the audience wanted more of it. Embracing her role as the society-abandoned waif, Tutunoa often lurked quietly in the background of scenes. Together, yet almost always apart from her peers. A subtle, yet powerful choice by the director, this underscored her isolation, and gave her character a raw and unique power in the story. A power which she embraced fully.
Rounding out the cast were; Macca Kelly as the too-charming Hanschen and Lyndon Steele, who brought a beautiful fresh energy to Ernst. The pair had stunning chemistry, and their romance, while briefly explored, is one of the purest moments in the show. Jessica Beilby as Martha, whose story of abuse and violence is especially confronting for the silence that it disappears into. It speaks of a society too familiar with ignoring things that are uncomfortable, and Beilby carries the difficult role off well.
Caelen Culpeper is a delight as Georg, and his piano lesson antics are an absolute treat, bringing some much needed levity to the gritty production. Lachlan Farnfield as Otto brought strong energy and vocals to the stage, but it is his work as the slimy Doctor that is particularly uncomfortable to watch. Amanda Burgess as Thea is so refreshingly optimistic as she sings about her crush, the audience couldn’t help but smile along with her. Balanced against Ruby Gleeson’s Anna, who is equally sweet in her role, the production had scope to play with, and more could have been made of the lightness in these characters to work against the harshness of the storyline.
The Authority Figures, played by Sandra Harman and director Pat James, filled the bulk of the adult roles in the piece, from teachers to parents. Harman brought a flexibility and playfulness to her work, swinging from caring parent-figure to calculated and harsh authoritarian with ease. Truly the work of a master of her craft – she is captivating every time she is on stage. James seemed to revel in the evilness of many of his characters, snarling and bellowing his lines and stalking the young cast intimidatingly with his sheer height and stage presence. A little restraint could have given some light and shade to these moments, as quiet can be far more terrifying than yelling, but the impact was significant just the same.
There is something dark and necessary and urgent about Moreton Bay Theatre Company’s production of ‘Spring Awakening’. In a world where Harry Potter is banned by a Nashville school (September, 2019) for fear that students may “accidentally conjure evil spirits”, and a Religious Liberties Bill passed the Ohio House of Representatives (14th November, 2019) to force teachers to allow work that is scientifically wrong if done for religious reasons, this production stands out. It should be seen, and then seen again, and then discussed at length as loudly as possible. It is, in many ways, a chilling iteration of what might come to pass, and that should haunt every last one of us.
‘Spring Awakening’ plays at the Neverland Theatre until 24th November, 2019. For ticketing and additional information go to https://mbtc.com.au.
Photography by Tom Antonio
This article has been edited by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne.