I took in Icarus Theatre Company’s Spring Awakening purely in the interest of theatrical blogging. That’s my excuse anyway. Teenage sex and nudity lost its appeal years ago. But you don’t often get a major nineteenth century play famed for its controversial themes dropping in on Harpenden. We are more your Rattigan and Coward types, sex wrapped up in polite conversation and nice dresses. Frank Wedekind, in a translation by bad boy Edward Bond, gives you teenage sexual repression full face.
Nothing wrong with that providing you do it well. And this young company, on a stark but imaginative set, can act their German rustic socks off. Pastoral youthful passions writ large. David McLaughlin was an excellent and assured Melchior, the boy who knows and writes about sex, and Christopher Smart a compelling Moritz riddled with guilt and repression. Both boys, at fourteen or fifteen, have discovered puberty and it is their reactions to it that is the heart of this demanding, but absorbing, piece. The one impregnates a girl, the other kills himself. Still happens all over the world but rarely depicted on stage as raw and disturbing as this one. Gabrielle Dempsey was a beautifully fragile and confused Wendla, Nicole Anderson a sensuously provocative Ilse and, in outstanding virtuosity, Gemma Barrett a feisty schoolgirl Martha and an unflinching buttoned up mother. In the best scene of the evening Miss Barrett’s Frau Bergman failed beautifully and miserably to spell out the facts of life to her daughter. When fourteen year old Wendla fell pregnant she poignantly tells her ma that she couldn’t be. She wasn’t married. She was that sort of girl; it was that sort of play.
Max Lewendel and Adam Purnell, director and set designer, combined to produce a compelling piece superbly lit and costumed. It was also episodic and wordy and you needed all your concentration powers to relate action to characters. Mine wandered a bit at the two gays in the wood, where did that come from I says, and at the teacher’s meeting to expel the sexually rebellious Melchior. Absurdist theatre beautifully conducted by Zachary Holton as a weird Chairman but, almost, completely mystifying. I blame my age, Elvis and Cliff obsessed my distant teenage years. But the heart of this Spring Awakening shone like a beacon. Mainly because this group, collectively, gave us an abundance of powerful and sincere acting of the highest class. Sex reared its complex head and young and old floundered in its confusions. Just like here in Harpenden. So I am told. Roy Hall