Review: Spring Awakening (ATYP)

atypVenue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 27 – May 14, 2016
Book and Lyrics: Steven Sater (based on the original by Frank Wedekind)
Music: Duncan Sheik
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: James Raggatt, Jessica Rookeward, Josh McElroy, Alex Malone, Patrick Diggins, Kate Cheel, Joe Howe, Bardiya McKinnon, Henry Moss, Caitlin Rose Harris, Taylor Howard Anthony, Alexandra Fricot, Julia Dray, Lochie Kent, Julian Kuo, Thomasin Litchfield, Richard Sydenham
Image by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
Teenagers discovering sex is among the most intense experiences that a person can go through. It is simultaneously delightful, frustrating, embarrassing and intractable, full of complexity and obsessive power in the way it dominates one’s body and mind. Adolescence is difficult and the consequences of sexual miseducation can be catastrophic, yet offering appropriate guidance and accurate information remains a challenge. Recent debates over the “Safe Schools” initiative to broaden the consciousness of high school students beyond a heteronormative scope and traditional religious values, have revealed conservative and harmful beliefs about sex that persist in Australia today. The story of Spring Awakening is over a century old but is based on those same tensions that still exist in our inability to be honest with the young about the pleasures and responsibilities associated with their sexualities. This 2006 musical incarnation is an edgy expression of the subject that exposes how we fail the young and the dire consequences that follow.

It is a spirited production, helmed by promising young performers. Watching them explore ideas around sex with exuberant openness, without a modicum of coyness or shame, is a truly remarkable experience. Each individual brings a confident presence and as a group, the ensemble delivers a passionate and bold staging that demonstrates their enthusiastic appreciation for the themes of discussion. Jessica Rookeward impresses as the naive Wendla, with a convincing and tender performance made prominent by a strong singing voice. The cast is emotionally compelling, but the overall standard of singing is adequate at best, which tarnishes their otherwise strong work. Choreography is effective in its ability to bring energy and excitement, but can sometimes be overbearing for the intimate space. Set design is kept minimal, with lights employed to do all the heavy lifting of conveying time and place. Damien Cooper and Ross Graham, co-lighting designers, contribute greatly to the vibrancy and variety of visuals. Direction by Mitchell Butel highlights all that is appealing about his zealously youthful actors, and creates a show with great optimism in spite of its dark narrative. There is a tendency to favour pathos over humour, which makes the production feel excessively heavy, but it achieves a beautiful authenticity that helps with the story’s poignancy.

The talents in Spring Awakening are in control. They surprise us with their maturity and their strength of resolve in taking over a stage to communicate what they believe to be real and valuable. We must never underestimate the capacities of our youth, and we must certainly never forget that much of our weaknesses have not yet befallen them. They need our protection but they deserve the truth. Our social problems, especially those pertaining to discrimination, are a product of ignorance that we continue to harness through false information and archaic belief systems. Spring Awakening represents the struggle against oppressive orthodoxies, and for the truth that sets us free.