‘Pre-pubescent Matilda’ is the term I used to describe the Almeida Theatre’s astonishing production of Spring Awakening to friends, and I’m ashamed that I could diminish such a striking take on Frank Wedekind’s story to such a cheeky description.
Yet there’s several elements of Rupert Goold’s production which look borrowed from the West End adaptation, albeit with grit and sharper edge. The haunting steps which form the basis for Miriam Buether’s set becomes a blank canvas for schoolchildren tired of the educational institution and hierarchy in which they find themselves – one which they long to climb. The teachers in charge, like Ms Trunchball, read like caricatures, with prosthetics, wrinkles and vibrant hair colours – a distinct, comical contrast to the bleak, black uniforms and mindsets of the classmates. Chalks in hand, the steps are used to vent their frustrations, illustrations range from coronavirus and social distancing, to sex and gender and, in later scenes, social justice. It’s obvious that the angst in this version extends to more than just sexual ambiguity – it taps into the restrictive parameters in which young people are allowed to communicate. The rights to protest, a form of expression popular among the younger population, is being curtailed by the UK Government – and I don’t need to elaborate on the claustrophobic nature of lockdown. The “blah, blah, blah” in Totally F**ked sure takes on a whole new meaning after Greta Thunberg used it to describe executive dysfunction.
Young people – certainly in this Spring Awakening – just want to breathe, and yet even that proves so difficult for some (namely the character of Moritz, played by Stuart Thompson, who carries himself with a brooding melancholy and weariness until the very end). In the case of our protagonists Melchior (played with slick sophistication from The Son‘s Laurie Kynaston) and Wendla (gently and compellingly performed by Les Misérables’ Amara Okereke) the nature of love is the most difficult, their moments almost shaped by repulsion before finally connecting. The purest sentiments still feel contained in the tightest perimeters, however – love and grief encapsulated in glass boxes, suffocating those trapped inside when the concentration gets too rich. Even sobbing is individualistic, with characters left to weep on steps alone. The real-life symbolism of all of this is not lost on us.
Its messages of community are equally as emphatic when the cast come together. Carrying out Lynne Page’s sensational and meticulous choreography with astonishing synchronisation, the company breathes as one. I didn’t ask for the sexualised personification of a piano, but it’s one I remember vividly for its daring and outrageous nature, along with several wild moments of excessive gyrating in The B**** of Living. You’ll note I haven’t written much about the triumphant music due to my difficulty understanding them as a Deaf audience member, but the orchestration is grandiose, with gorgeous string melodies. The chemistry and confidence is towering, the lighting and projections on set just magnificent. The creative talent on display overflows from the stage on which it is being performed, rendering a West End transfer of this production inevitable.
Spring Awakening is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 22 January. A captioned performance will take place on 13 January, with an audio described performance on 15 January.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Spring Awakening’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.