Fans of Wedekind’s taboo-breaking original or its cult teen-rock musical spawn beware: this adaptation is never quite as wryly funny or as heart-wrenching. Rites: A Children’s Tragedy is a streamlined presentation of Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), a drama revolutionary in its indictment of late 19th century prudishness and pedagogy. It demonstrates the damage inflicted on young adults by parental expectations, a straitjacketed school system and the denial of teenage sexuality. This production succeeds in distilling the play to a Fringe-friendly length, but loses some of the punch of the original through overly fussy staging and underwhelming performances.
The teenager has yet to be invented and growing up can feel like the scariest thing on earth. Wendla is fourteen, but her mother won’t tell her where babies come from. Moritz just can’t seem to do well at school and he’d rather die than disappoint his parents. Melchior thinks he knows it all. We witness the comical and heartbreaking consequences of their attempts to understand sexuality without adult guidance. Anyone who has been a teenager will laugh at moments such as the scene where schoolboys masturbate to erotic postcards beneath a very crowded bedsheet. More serious subject matter includes abortion, rape and teen suicide - this is a text which is still more than capable of shocking and provoking the audience.
This production looks gorgeous, but tends towards being more show than substance. The young actors’ delivery is often forced and no performance really stands out, although the girls do well to embody schoolgirl innocence, parental disapproval and adult sexuality in their shifting roles. Earnest acting results in a slightly stilted, unconvincing feel to many lines. The constant use of melodramatic music rather suggests a lack of confidence in the cast’s ability, though it does have emotional effect at times.
The main issue is indulgent stage business and an overly large cast, with far too much going on in between scenes. The stage is often unnecessarily cluttered and the actors’ incessant milling around distracts from the emotions at play. That said, the choreography does yield some haunting tableaux: a sensual, disturbing ballroom scene is a striking glimpse at an alien adult world. Another standout moment is as a funeral where black umbrellas double as crows. Perfectly serviceable but lacking a certain spark, Rites is a promising production which still has a little bit of growing up to do.