Review: Awakening

Powerful updating of Wedekind’s text spans the ages. A burning beacon illuminating teenage desire for knowledge.

Written in the dying decade of the 19th century, German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (Frühlings Erwachen) was so controversial in its forthright treatment of teenage sexuality and its attempted repression by adults and the education system that the curtain would not rise on its debut performance until 1906, with many spells of censorship to follow.

Depicting depression, sexual violence and also queer love, these days the text is considered a classic, going on to enjoy a second life as a rock music-charged Broadway musical. Drawing on Wedekind’s original text as inspiration, writer/director Daniel Lammin’s Awakening, encoring now at fortyfivedownstairs following a lauded debut run at Trades Hall last year, is another beast again. And it is quite magnificent

In many ways this new adaptation, created in collaboration with Monash University Student Theatre, is even truer to the story, focusing almost entirely on its teenage characters, pruning the puritanical adult coterie back to one, Frau Bergmann, reluctant to accede to the demands of her headstrong 14-year-old daughter Wendla who demands to know how babies are made.

Classmates Hans and Ernst are drawn to each other in a time that did not recognise homosexual attraction. Moritz is frightened by his oncoming puberty, looking to worldly best mate Melchior for advice. But Melchior’s lust for Wendla precipitates a brutal attack that will shatter their sheltered existence.

Sterling ensemble Nicola Dupree, Samantha Hafey-Bagg, Imogen Walsh, Eamonn Johnson, James Malcher and Sam Porter weave in and out of these shared roles set against the backdrop of projected inter-titles announcing each scene in a series of deftly handled vignettes. Some are enticingly erotic, others achingly naïve. Some are empowered as the teenagers demand to know more about this world in which they are rapidly unfurling, while others are horrific as the weight of that world presses down on them. All are electrifying.

Aided in no small part by cast member Porter’s impressive sound design and the deliberately cacophonic intrusion of contemporary pop, Lammin leads his audience to view the shadow of the past cast on our increasingly conservative present.

Hewing more closely to the original text in Awakening’s opening half, the play jumps forward to a contemporary setting after the interval, with Charmian Sim’s costumes following suit. The issues addressed are as startlingly relevant today as they were for Wedekind, but the way in which we interrogate them has, of course, changed dramatically, a fact Lammin tackles head on as Wendla rewrites the book on her assault, refusing to be a victim, to go quietly into the night.

It’s an electric moment, at once true to the spirit of Spring Awakening and yet a meta-textual updating that illuminates across the ages, offering a glimpse at a possible future when teenagers will be truly empowered to do the right thing, both by themselves and each other.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords


Awakening is at fortyfivedownstairs until May 21. Book tickets here.