Originally appeared on ACE Magazine on 16/05/2014
Anya Reiss’ adaptation of Fank Wederkind’s 1891 play has the potential to liberate – that is, if you are so inclined to afford yourself a sense of liberation in the face of explicit masturbation, rape, S&M, suicide and fatally botched abortions.
Despite its foray of anticipated gloom, there’s no dwelling on the tragedy that Wedekind ascribed to his play, with its subtitle “A Childhood Tragedy.” The Headlong theatre company’s retelling simply adds to its heading, “In a new version by Anya Reiss.”
This new version – infiltrated by unruly, joint smoking swag, and a soundtrack that applauds explicitly “My dick bigger than a bridge, your dick look like a kid’s” – presents a scorching, contemporary depiction of an age old conundrum. A long way from its original pastoral setting, Reiss’ Spring Awakening is transported to the modern world, where society’s qualms with adolescent sexuality, and its wish to keep these untimely desires at bay, are re-examined amongst all the props and devices of today’s technological intoxication.
Any sighs of relief we may emit at the open-mindedness of today’s society cease as the toils and woes of a sexually repressed 19th century Germany are fitted so perfectly to today’s stage; something as uncomfortable to our senses as the synthetic, static noise that rips through the air between scenes. Still dictated by yesteryear’s romantic notions of childhood, we strive to prolong it, unscathed. This is clear in the 16+ age guidance warning Reiss’ play comes with; an age we have formally registered as being suitable for such themes.
Yet, what about those individuals waiting in the restless, hormone-fuelled “no man’s land” just below this age restriction? A space inhabited by the 14 year old characters of the play, who are no longer allowed to “still dress like we’re in junior school” yet still not granted admission into knowing the truths of the world awaiting them. How are they to contend with these denied feelings in a culture so palpably sex-driven, propelled forward by the advertising and entertaining industries with iconic credence? An abyss of uncensored, unmonitored material lies at their fingertips, offering explicit and detailed responses to every unanswered question. The dangers of this are seen when Melchior uses violent pornographic material to explain the mysteries of sex to Moritz, or when he turns to Google in search of an answer to the profound question, “How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong?”
Unlike Wedekind’s original, the adults here are no longer solitarily burdened with the blame of the children’s tragic downfalls. If they are to be accused of anything, it is that they too are just as uncertain of such questions about right and wrong. The children take on the roles of their parents and teachers in a quixotic, staged re-enactment; squabbling over who gets to play which role, missing stage queues and moving abruptly between the generations, aware already of the subtleties involved in acting the adult. We see the adults’ own struggles of transgressing into maturity and, with no preparation, having to lead the next generation through the world. The weighty questions that the children demand do not seem to be truly known by anybody, regardless of age. “To watch God and the devil square off against one another and know neither can win. Or exist.” (Moritz).
As the audience laughs and squirms at the outbursts of adolescent emotion, recalled with such clarity, we are urged to continue remembering those moments of youthful confusion and idealism outside of the Playhouse. It’s a liberating thought to be able to drop the mask of false wisdom and infallibility, and begin to accept our own ignorance without shame or fear.
And so to finish with the words not of Reiss, not even of Wedekind, but with those of antiquity, as a warning of this cyclic occurrence, seems fitting. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” (Socrates)