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Spring Awakening at the Union Theatre

Mary Couzens of EXTRA! EXTRA!

German playwright Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Wedekind wrote his first play, The Awakening of Spring in 1891, when he was twenty-six.

Remarkably for its time, the play addresses issues relating to sexuality and the awakening that the title suggests. It was subsequently banned for several years, and was not performed in its original, uncensored form in the U.K. until 1974. Wedekind is best known for his masterpiece, Lulu.

As we moved to our seats in the Union Theatre, youthful actors giggled from their hiding places. A red apple glistened on a lone chair before a young girl bit into it. Their childish game of hide and seek, and this symbol of biblical forbidden fruit were metaphoric. Later, teenage friends Melchior and Morita secretly discuss their first stirrings of virility. In their provincial German town, staunch Christianity is not just a matter of religion, but also, a way of life. The suppressed adults around them enforce the belief that worldly ignorance, though not necessarily blissful, is necessary to salvation. Subsequently their more intuitive offspring, who sense their parents' hypocrisy, learn to take what they want from life without giving thought to the consequences.

Ryan Gage and Jeremy Joyce give thoroughly engrossing, convincing performances as curious, philosophical teenage friends Melchior and Moritz. Melchior harbours latent tendencies beneath his upstanding exterior, which contemporary psychiatrists might see as rather normal, considering his age. Moritz has a habit of continually courting death, which today would more than likely propel him towards a blindingly successful career in the world of conceptual art. But in their time and place, Melchior must make do with seducing a young girl from the local village, whilst Moritz waxes lyrical over what he perceives to be his friend's extremely vivid imagination. Both boys also feel pressurised to achieve high grades in their chosen courses of study, certainly something many audience members can relate to today.

The seventeen strong cast offers many distinctive performances. Adam Howden, Jay Carter, Cameron Slater, Christos Lawton, Roy Khalil and Aidan Synnott are very effective in their multiple roles – representative of various age groups, and Nina Fry and Orna Salinger shine as a Wendla's young friends. Caroline Joyce and Jan Shepherd give thoughtful performances as mothers – old school and progressive, whilst David Hollett and James Folan heighten tension as authoritative headmaster and Moritz's father respectively. Kate Colgrave Pope is also memorable as teenage dreamer Ilse.

Spring Awakening is beautifully written, and some of its lines resonate like poetry, particularly those spoken by Jeremy Joyce as Moritz. And the play signals a marked difference in attitudes and thinking between generations. Nothing new in that notion perhaps, but it is doubtless, one of the reasons why Spring Awakening seems timeless. Its characters discuss issues of a sexual nature frankly and its action suggests far more within its broad scope than many nineteenth century plays. Although the play may not be shocking by today's standards, when it is considered in the context of its own time, one realises it was quite daring.

The size of the cast and scale of the action of Spring Awakening seem to demand a larger space. But for this outing, the flexible seating of the Union Theatre has been lined up along the two longer walls of its rectangular space to provide maximum performance area and visibility. Some of the scenes, the settings for which were designed by Jenny Dawes are very imaginatively placed, particularly the play's conclusion, which was ethereal and somewhat surreal, with definite Faustian overtones.
• Until 22 July at the Union Theatre; see listings information

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