By Frank Wedekind
Almost the best thing about amateur theatre groups is that they can afford to take risks, putting on plays that no professional theatre company would dare to touch. This is not because the plays are too outrageous for the general public (remember Shopping and F****** that the QTC did a few years ago?) but because they are too obscure, too far out of the fashionable mainstream, to be able to guarantee an audience.
Student theatre especially has always been game to take on such challenges, and Underground Productions, a student-run theatre company based at the Cement Box Theatre at the University of Queensland, is no exception. As their mission statement claims, “we are a non-profit organisation committed to producing quality theatre. The nurturing environment that we provide for actors, directors, writers, designers and technicians encourages up-and-coming artists to explore and develop their talents”, and their second production for 2006, the late 19th century German expressionist play Spring Awakening , meets all the criteria, especially the nurturing bit.
Plays with a cast of 16 are non-starters in today’s world of pared-down production budgets, so nowhere else would you be likely to see this notorious masterpiece that shocked the respectable European middle-class of its time with its frank examination of the sexual ignorance of teenagers and the dreadful results that often ensued. In the play the young pregnant Wendla is killed by the quack into whose hands her mother has delivered her; Melchior, her innocent seducer, is condemned as a moral pervert; and Moritz is driven to suicide because he cannot pass his exams.
At the time, Wedekind was accused of exaggerating his characters, but today our more open society realises the truth of what had too long remained hidden, and how vulnerable susceptible adolescents really are.
True as all this may be, Wedekind’s language is overblown and overly rhetorical for modern tastes, so it wouldn’t work on a mainstream stage, although I wonder what Ted Hughes’s translation of six years ago was like. Unfortunately the program notes didn’t identify the translator of this version, but it didn’t sound like Ted Hughes to me.
Spring Awakening is a fantastic play, and I mean that in every sense of the word. There are strong echoes of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, who were writing fifty years earlier than Wedekind, but it also touches on the ideas about dreams and memory that Freud was working on at exactly the same time. How much Wedekind was influenced by the great scientist I don’t know, but the play also prefigures all kinds of 20th century works of art, from John Fowles’ 1965 novel The Magus to Ingmar Bergmann’s 1959 film Virgin Spring, with hints of the darker Walt Disney cartoons along the way.
It would take a stronger cast than this irrepressible group of students to pull off this histrionic script completely – and if you know the play you’ll recognise my reference. Perhaps to compensate for their lack of experience, they played it as high farce rather than melodrama, and the audience was in hysterics. Unfortunately I had to leave before the end, so I wasn’t able to see how they managed the tragic finale, but the two-thirds of the production that I did see produced some good moments, even if many of the actors didn’t display much stage presence, and their lack of experience made them very self-conscious. Playing fourteen-year-olds is difficult for late teens to do well, and there were rather too many hoonish schoolboy antics to be convincing, although the girls made a recognisable gaggle of pubescents.
But it was a good try, and not many student actors would have been able to do it better. The set, by Helen Vann, was innovative and flexible, and although the costumes might have been better had they come within coo-ee of an iron at some stage, they evoked the period very well I especially liked the Alice-in-Wonderland look and the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee stockings of the schoolgirls.
The three principals Georgina Horsburgh, Michael Jones and Kade Greenland all have the potential to go on to bigger things once they’ve got over their self-consciousness, and Scott Drummond pulled the complex play into a coherent whole. BR>
Probably not many people saw this production, as it only had five performances, and in any case it wasn’t really ready to go public, but Underground Theatre is to be congratulated for giving this quite wonderful play another airing. And you’ve gotta love a theatre company with a heart, one that thinks that live theatre should be more than just entertainment and self-indulgence, especially when they have donated a sizable part of their profits (assuming there are any) to Open Doors, a counselling service for non-heterosexual teenagers, and to the Domestic Violence Help Line.
Let’s have more of this kind of theatre, and more young actors and directors with a social conscience as well as big egos, who want to challenge audiences while they themselves have a good time playing at being actors. I’m sure none of them are thinking of making a career of it, but as one who sees a great deal of drama-student theatre, I find that quite a relief.
So keep an eye out for their next production, which runs from 26 July to 5 August. It’s called Tribes of Avalon, a company-created musical about which I know absolutely nothing, except that it promises to be an Arthurian romp. But I suspect it will be very different from Spring Awakening .
Directed by Scott Drummond
Played 24 – 28 May 2006
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval