Theatre Review: Spring Awakening – Seduced By Curiosity, Or An Urge To Be Heard

April 15, 2024




Spring Awakening / Directed by Sylvaine Strike / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


Ah, to see a story about teenagers where they’re not permanently staring at their phones and talking to each other in ridiculous text abbreviations… This is, after all, a musical based on a play written and set in the early 1890s by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This was a time when kids wore uniforms to single-sex schools where they were less likely to be tempted into morally dubious behaviours, according, at least, to the perspectives of their often morally dubious elders. A different era. Escapism on stage.

Or not.

There are none of the now cliched horrors of modern societies – screens, the internet and all the rest – in Spring Awakening, but it takes only a couple of scenes to suggest and then a couple more to confirm (youngsters singing a rousing rock song called The Bitch Of Living, anyone?) that existential dread, loneliness, self-image and identity issues, poor communication skills, disconnected friends and family and the discombobulating confusion of navigating sex and sexuality as someone ill-equipped to do so are challenges that now simply arrive through different channels or are defined by different terms.

With a superb ensemble supporting a couple of well-defined subplots, the script examines the gooey muddle of hormones and emotions and unshakeable certainty and crippling doubt and bewildering “growth” – it hardly feels like it in the moment, does it? – that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It pulls no punches in calling out, via hard-hitting satire, the hypocrisy of particular adults (parents, teachers, clergymen) and society in general in not only creating the contexts in which confusion was inevitable, rather than possible) but also in failing to lead by example or by helpfully (even if imperfectly) preparing their charges for what is to come.

Steven Sater’s story and song lyrics paint clear pictures around the positions held by each of the characters, be those positions problematic (“I am right, they are wrong, and I cannot be swayed from my path) or poignant (“I don’t know how to do this and nobody I ask is giving me the answers I need”). Both of those spaces are sometimes uneasy to enter into as an audience member, but everyone watching, without exception, can relate to a feeling or situation or state of mind depicted onstage. Duncan Sheik’s music is designed to keep the emotional tempo as high as the energy levels needed for the choreography and so, for all the depth of the subject matter, the play fizzes along and always engages.

All of those components make this a hugely challenging piece to perform convincingly, whatever the approach. In this case, director Sylvaine Strike has added her trademark magic in movement, adding a whole new facet to a strict teacher’s character through the odd way that he walks or emphasising the reticence of a class or congregation to accept at face value what is being spouted from the lectern by having them sway in undulating lines as the speaker directs his or her gaze at them. That all this feels contiguous with the propulsive choreography of Anna Olivier and Naoline Quinzin is just one of the many examples of attention to detail (further nods are due to Niall Griffin’s set and lighting design and David Classen’s sound design, which keeps the singing and dialogue somehow ever-crisp despite all the movement) that make it difficult to identify – should you want to – an aspect of this production that could have been handled better.

As remarkable as it is to have such a platform, though, the most important pieces of the puzzle are the performers. Out of a 21-strong cast, only two members – Francis Chouler and Natalie Robbie, who play all the adult characters between them and are both fantastic – are not either current or recently graduated members of LAMTA (Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy). This places the average age of the cast at around 20, meaning the performers are only a few years older than their characters and more than likely still in the process of dealing with some of the central issues of the story. That adds profound layers to their performances, but even if they had no direct collective connection to Wedekind’s themes, it’s likely that the combination of their excellent training and remarkable talent would have carried the production to the same heights achieved here. As it is here, this show could play on any stage in the world and receive admiration for its execution. Every voice is powerful and clear; every representation of a psychological or emotional space nuanced and absorbing. Arrogance, confusion and desperation are all equally convincingly communicated and the three young leads, Dylan Janse Van Rensburg, Scarlett Pay and Johnathan Viljoen (still students all) can offer no better calling cards to industry professionals seeking the next generation of leading men and women. To be fair to the ensemble, the same is true of every cast member, even if they have less solo stage time, with Gerard Van Rooyen deserving a specific call-out.

This is not a show that answers the tough questions it poses, but in unflinchingly exploring the consequences of bad decisions and the tragedy that so often results from not giving the fears and concerns of young men and women the attention they deserve, it helps to drive dialogue on issues too often swept under the carpet, leaving vulnerable people at risk and often further damaging the parts of society those who would rather avoid awkward conversations are trying to protect. It is a brave work, brilliantly produced, that sets a bar for anyone – of any level of professional experience – to try and match.