Spring Awakening: explosive, anarchic musical at the Almeida *****

Spring Awakening Almeida Theatre Islington Christmas 2021

Spring Awakening at the Almeida. Amara Okereke (Wendla) and Laurie Kynaston (Melchior). - Credit: Marc Brenner

‘One of the most loathsome and depraved plays I have ever read’ was the verdict of the Lord Chamberlain’s office on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 shocker Spring Awakening; a play that hits its audience with parental abuse, suicide, burgeoning homosexuality, and abortion.

On the intimate Almeida stage, Rupert Goold’s charged revival of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony award winning indie-rock musical foregrounds adolescent anarchy.

While the play’s original preoccupation with parents willfully repressing knowledge of sexual awareness in their children is hardly the issue du jour, the desire of disaffected teenagers to proclaim their rights – given voice in the superbly witty anthem Totally Fucked – rages on.

When Melchior (rising star Laurie Kynaston) falls for Wendla (Amara Okereke) on a walk home from their segregated, punitive schools, and they make a baby in the haystacks oblivious to the facts of life, the blind cruelty of Wendla’s mother’s response and its tragic consequences become emblematic of how society fails its young people.

Spring Awakening Almeida Theatre Islington

Spring Awakening Almeida Theatre Islington - Credit: Marc Brenner

The damage is everywhere: Melchior’s crippling sense of inadequacy in the face of a forbidding educational system; free spirit Isle living in a dubious bohemian community; beautiful Martha’s physical and sexual abuse. Presented as a parade of grotesques, the adults try but cannot quash ‘the creeping sensuality of these liberal-minded times.’ A key textual change - a pull back on the rape subtext in the Melchior and Wendla sex scene - consolidates the play’s sympathy for youthful principle.

Miriam Buether’s flexible design uses black raked seating that suggests a grisly post-apocalyptic lecture hall. Flanked by a semi-circle of glass, it’s a little too cool for school but it serves to heighten the sense of alienation as characters flit in and out of their brief, fragmentary scenes.

Spring Awakening Almeida Theatre Islington

Catherine Cusack, Amara Okereke and Laurie Kynaston in Spring Awakening Almeida Theatre Islington - Credit: Marc Brenner

More glass - a box near the front of the stage - offers refuge or confinement. Abstract projections suggest snow or rippling water and inventive choreography invites the exceptional ensemble to express innermost feelings as they arch, tumble, jump or sprint over steps. This explosive Spring Awakening foregoes some of the play’s poetry, but favours the anarchy that’s necessary and relevant to our time.

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