Anya Reiss is doing alright in the North of England. With her adaptation of The Seagull having just closed the Library Theatre’s long, illustrious residency in Manchester, Spring Awakening opens over the other side of the Pennines at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. A co-production with both Headlong and the Nuffield Theatre, this adaptation sees Reiss dominating the theatrical landscape of the North.
Not much out of her teens herself, (‘she’s only 22, you know’, I keep being told) this 2010 Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award winner seems to have pinpointed the very heart of the piece: the moment when a child understands all the pain and suffering and horror that exists in the world, the moment where innocence battles with the truth that life is complicated and full of suffering, that the world is cruel, nature is a bitch and your parents haven’t got a clue what they’re doing.
As with The Seagull, this up-to-date adaptation of Spring Awakening hurtles the audience into a modern setting. The play was first performed in 1906 in Berlin and was subtitled A Children’s Tragedy. It was Frank Wedekind’s comment on the sexual repression of the time. Controversial in subject matter with topics including child abuse, suicide and female sexual exploration, it has been a firm fixture in the theatrical landscape ever since.
Set design comes courtesy of Colin Richmond who has the Royal Shakespeare Company, the West End and the Royal Exchange on his very long, very impressive CV. His stark, stripped back set exposes the back stage area where all the props and set are waiting. A knackered playground with rusty swings and springy horse-rides are lit by Malcolm Rippeth’s design and the two effects together are a brilliant backdrop with which to examine the characters’ fading purity.
Director Ben Kidd has assembled an impressive young cast whose own youth makes for compelling viewing. All of them double as teenagers and adult characters, ‘play-acting’ the roles of the grown-ups and commenting on their behaviour throughout. This makes for a visceral and raw watch.
However, there are niggling issues including the use of character names. The production is set somewhere in the UK but Reiss’s choice to retain the original Germanic names is jarring. If one is brave enough to adapt a classic play, a name change is no issue at all. In fact, this would better serve the adaptation. This choice means there is a distance between the viewer and the drama, as if the piece is suspended in some timeless place, some purgatory between the old work and the new and it never quite connects with either.
Another slight problem is the characters’ discoveries of sex and sexuality. In this modern retelling, Melchior’s diagrams and old books on the subject of sex are replaced with internet porn. There is no other means of information on this topic – there’s no TV here, no Eastenders or Hollyoaks – but there is porn, lots and lots of porn. It seems there’s no sex education in schools either.
But this is not an attack on Reiss’s work. She’s gifted, for sure, and it’s a thrill to see talented, young women express themselves successfully in a sea of white, middle-aged men and, who knows, in another ten years time, this 22-year-old woman won’t be an anomaly, she’ll be one of many. And about time too.
Where: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
When: until March 22, 2014
More info: http://www.wyp.org.uk/what’s-on/2014/spring-awakening/