Review by Thomas Gregory
IMPORTANT NOTE: This production contains depictions and discussion of sexual and physical violence, suicide, and forced termination of pregnancy. As such, these topics are also brought up within this review. The production also includes nudity, loud noises, and flashing lights.
I must admit, from the outset, that I hold a particular bias when it comes to reviewing this show. For example, Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening was the first production I was involved in, albeit decades ago. It also happens to be one of my favourite fictional depictions of adolescence, up there with Catcher in the Rye, Heathers, and Never Have I Ever. As such, I know it would be difficult for any production to be worthy of praise. Let this information be the context when I say that Sevenfold Theatre Company has produced a show that will count among the best I have reviewed this year.
Written in 1891, Spring Awakening was a play long before its time. Adolescence was a new concept; the word “teenager” would not yet appear in any form for another three years. Wedekind’s play controversially presented the genuine issues faced by teenagers still today; it contained scenes and discussions about masturbation, rape, abortion, and suicide. It was critical of the formal education system (whose model is still used today), the religious position on suicide and homosexuality, and the role of corporal punishment on young people's mental health. That it had been banned on many occasions is of no surprise. That anyone thought it appropriate to turn into a musical is.
Sevenfold Theatre Company’s production of this “Children's Tragedy” is based on the 1910 translation that is public domain and available for anyone to read. Updated and edited carefully by Zachary Dixon and Maddie Roberts, the text of the production is not far removed from those words experienced by the first audiences. In my experience, rarely do such manipulations of text not harm the original impact a script may hold, but this particular arrangement is arguably superior. One particular rearrangement of scenes provides a confronting comparison of “physical intimacy” and society’s response to devastating effects.
Visual additions to the text also, for the most part, emphasise the messaging well. From old hymns to modern songs, music becomes an essential part of this production without ever detracting from the drama, while two new “characters” appear voiceless on regular occasions. These walking symbols are far from the distracting tools I have experienced in other productions but a purely visual chorus to highlight the themes presented on stage.
The design, from set to lighting and sound, is beautiful. Appropriately, the play is presented in an old church, and the raised set is a large cross on the ground, covered in the green of youth. While the occasional chair, table, or gravestone appears, these larger set pieces are used sparingly. Colour is paramount to this production, with blacks, whites, greens and blues all playing specific roles in set, lighting and design. Mirrors, moved about the stage by the ensemble cast, are used to confront both characters and audiences. The original score by Ruby Lulham (using her unique “Clariloops” technique) provides a haunting background to the entire show.
Sevenfold’s production also includes audio-visual elements, with videos and images projected on the back of the church. These thematic images present some deep concepts many would not consider connected to the play. While some may leave a person wondering about the precise significance, this is an intentional ploy to continue the discussion long after the play is finished.
The direction of this production is considered and purposeful. The difficult decisions about character and motivation were not avoided, leaving a clear narrative and unclouded message about what happens on stage. This crystal vision from Dixon has been communicated well to the cast, who are all talented performers. Jackson Cross offers a Melchior filled with outward bravado while teeming with violence and fear. Joanna Halliday is a sensitive, almost neurotic Moritz; her final scene is chilling. The ensemble actors switch so seamlessly between characters that only the programme can convince you that such disparate characters were played by the same professionals. Still, two performers somehow stand out in this crowd of brilliance.
The role of Wendla is one of the most challenging a young actor could face, and Dixon’s vision of her is complex. A true innocent, a short dress only means cool legs to her. While she knows the stork doesn’t bring children, this fourteen-year-old doesn’t know where the answer lies. She knows that a boy may be cute, but not why that might matter. When a violent intrusion breaks her down, she is left scared, ashamed, and broken.
Properly capturing the innocence yet curiosity of a young woman and the savage wrenching of that innocence away is a difficult task. Emma Snow brings sincerity to innocence, never letting any moment suggest that her character is more knowing, or complicit in the events that form her tragic path. When the defining event of her arc occurs, the fear in her voice is chilling, and few audience members will find tears in the final scene in which she appears.
Perhaps the most hopeful, and therefore powerful, set of roles in this production is given to Xi Gui Griffin. While graceful in the unvoiced role she appears as most, her representation of Venus is palpably erotic and, as Wendla’s sister Ina, incredibly heartfelt. However, there is a single moment, a monologue of great significance, which highlights the talent of this young woman. Griffin is at times joyful, at times filled with shadows, in the telling the tale of Ilsa being a “muse” to the town's artists hits every subtle note with perfectly.
The leading cause of death for young people in Australia is suicide. Our education system is based on that created during the Industrial Revolution and is failing us year on year. Youth homelessness continues to rise while our old politicians debate whether our billionaires should lose money to save the planet.
On the other hand, there has not been a time in recorded history when our teenagers have used drugs or fallen pregnant less often. While Sevenfold Theatre Company brilliantly highlights how the children of Wedekind’s world faced problems still unresolved today, it also offers hope. A final addition to the script from the directors repeats the conclusion of that final philosophical conversation with a dance of wild hope - a dance of joyful youth that leaves a silver lining on a night of dark tragedy.
Sevenfold Theatre Company’s production of Spring Awakening is unlikely ever to be surpassed in my viewing experience, and I highly recommend you catch a performance while you still can.