Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening is a play that has caused more than its fair share of controversy since it was written in 1890. Indeed, as the promotional material for this new production by Eton College’s Double Edge Drama points out, its first uncensored professional production didn’t occur in England until 1974, a full 68 years after its premiere in Berlin in 1906. Eager to add to this already controversial history, this production sees a cast composed entirely of children the same age as their characters – a rare thing in a play that deals with themes as dark and troubling as rape, suicide, child abuse and youthful sexuality.
This young cast of 14 and 15 year-olds may prove controversial, but they are also extremely talented and skilful enough to deal with the dark themes with a depth well beyond their years. Gabriel Slaughter is magnificent as the shrewd but troubled Melchior, lending the character a lofty arrogance that all too quickly descends into dangerous expressions of sexuality and confused vulnerability. Honor Cargill-Martin also stands out as the curious but tragically misinformed Wendla, and both her and Slaughter deal well with acting out some of the plays more difficult moments.
This is not a straightforward production of the original play. Instead, the source material receives a radical reinterpretation that cuts back on some themes while adding a new slant to others. The burgeoning homosexual relationship between Hanschen and Ernst is omitted, while a new framing for the play is introduced in the form of a village choir re-enacting the terrible events in order to obtain some sort of posthumous understanding of them. The choral score this allows for is an inspired touch, while the live quartet of cellos and clarinets provide a doom-laden, eerie soundtrack to events. The simplistic set is also put to good use, with stacked chairs used to represent towering trees and raised levels to admirable effect, though the background noise produced by this constant rearranging of chairs does mean that the dialogue can occasionally prove tricky to hear.
Overall, this is an impressive, minimalist production of a difficult play that will no doubt add to the general feeling of anticipation and expectation surrounding the young talents of Eton’s Double Edge Drama. It may not be an easy watch, but it is entertaining enough to be hugely compelling, and compelling enough to make any effort entirely worthwhile.