Anyone making the trip to Brockley in search of an alternative rock musical is liable to get something of a shock; this production is of the less-often-performed play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, a late nineteenth-century tale that is as a powerful criticism of the rigid, exam-obsessed and authoritarian culture of Germany, where it was banned for decades. Wedekind’s exploration of the effects of this rigid structure on young people has an altogether darker tone, with bullying, suicide, teenage pregnancy and child abuse lurking darkly beneath the trees.
New company OutFox Productions fully embraces these darker elements, without ever fully giving a sense of the culture that pushes the young teenagers to desperation; the costumes could place us anywhere in a 50-year span. While the often overly-intrusive sound design has strikingly effective moments, such as the opening scene of chaotic play set to folk rock, it often interrupts moments of real power with a blast of incongruous modernity. Similarly, the design is complex without being evocative, with the actors constantly sliding blackboard panels around into arrangements that produce exactly the same impression as the previous one, and laser projections that distract rather than suggest the contrast between the wild forest world where the teenagers let rip, and the rigid provincial morals of their homes and schools.
The direction of the play is fluent, perhaps too much so; as scene slides into scene, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with where we are and what’s going on. Speeches trip mellifluously from supposedly tortured tongues, presenting teenagers whose relentless eloquence cannot be interrupted even by masturbation or suicidal urges. That said, there are some strong performances from the younger end of the cast; Moritz (Joe Sowerbutts) is by turns impish, earnest and tormented, making it clear why he appeals to his darker and more intelligent best friend Melchior (David Palmstrom). Wendla (Ana Luderowski) is entirely convincing in a role that is impossibly naive by today’s standards, and her scene with her mother, Frau Bergmann (Rachel Dobell), has real charm. Unfortunately, some of the other adult performances jar, particularly in the overblown kangaroo court that opens the second half, with what should be Kafka-esque bleak comedy played desperately for laughs.
A projection at the play’s opening conveys the message in German – rather pointlessly for most of the audience – that a little learning is a dangerous thing, this quotation from the famously conservative Alexander Pope is in opposition to the true meaning of the play, which suggests that too much learning, forced on young minds, is far worse, and that sexuality and instinct need no schooling to be dangerous. Despite its weaknesses, this is an enjoyable and often powerful production from a new company that conveys the horrors that can arise in children overschooled in Latin, but underschooled in self-restraint and kindness, acting amorally even in a society desperate to police their every moral instinct.
Spring Awakening is playing at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre’s website.