Hunched in a museum toilet a teenager masturbates to an increasingly erotic audio description of Vecchio’s Venus. Then the play’s first word: “mum”.
It’s not that Headlong’s Spring Awakening is delivering this punch in the face for the hell of it: the exciting newness of teenage experience and the comfort of mum and dad and home life are at clashing odds throughout. The way that puberty drags you from a warm and cosseted naivety into a cold, sharp confrontation with love, anger, sex and hair everywhere is the play’s constant.
It is built into the direction by Ben Kidd: the eight actors have the school uniforms and choreographed physicality of Matilda, but Matilda stripped of every shred of innocence and instead pumped full of hormones. It is built cannily into the design (Colin Richmond) – the back and wings of the stage are exposed; plastic strips hang along the back wall like a factory warehouse. But among these is Ikea furniture, the bunk bed with a desk underneath that your cool friends had, a bed on which Melchior rapes 14 year old Wendla.
This is not a 19th century play anymore (if it ever was – its explicit look at sex has provoked censorship many times over the years). Re-writer Anya Reiss has added the deep cynicism and sass of Gen Z, and embedded technology into the lives of these young digital natives. Grainy smartphone footage, grainier porn and Skype conversations are projected onto the plastic strips. In Wedekind’s original Melchior writes Moritz a letter explaining the finer details of sex, in this version he emails links to extreme porn.
Reiss rarely turns her adaptation into a chance to show off, the script never sounds pretentious – she has a stunning knack for remembering what young teenagers talk about and for understanding what sounds right in the mouths of 14 year olds, like how many extra percent you get on your exams for the death of a pet, or a brother.
The production’s most powerful moments come from small details: after Moritz’s suicide is the funeral at school. The scene starts with the kids putting blue plastic chairs out in rows – laying out the chairs for their own friend’s funeral. There is something about this tiny, clinical detail that is a little bit devastating. Only children would have to do this, probably from the presumption by teachers that they don’t have the emotional attachment to their dead friend that would make the task seem insulting. And after Melchior, desperate to be an adult, rapes Wendla he rips the sheets off his bed in a swell of remorse and goes and hugs his mum.
What resonates throughout the production is the inadequacy of parents and teachers to educate a generation they do not understand. Embarrassed adults tell their children twisted, romanticised versions of the truth (Wendla’s mum tells her she can only get pregnant if she’s in love) so they have to go looking online, asking questions on Yahoo Answers, for solutions to life’s most fundamental problems, like what is right and what is wrong. Unsurprisingly these solutions, even if they are less romanticised, are often even more twisted.