Playing this week at the Lantern in Kemptown, Brief Hiatus’ unusual interpretation of Spring Awakening is modern, arresting and uncomfortable. If you like Bertolt Brecht, epic drama and Nietzsche you may enjoy this play – which contrasts male and female teenagers’ boisterous, comic, but ultimately dark odyssey into adulthood.
Most theatre invites us to suspend disbelief, inviting subjective engagement in the world of the play. Drawing on techniques from Brecht’s school of epic drama, Anya Reiss’s recent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s script seeks to do the opposite, relying on its audience’s reflective detachment rather than emotional involvement. Just like Wedekind’s century-old original, this version is deliberately provocative, and viewers are invited to be critical. Expect to be disconcerted – if not shocked.
Reiss’s characterisation is largely good. I liked Wendla, a young woman from a privileged background longing to identify with the suffering of others. She is impressionable and innocent, taking advice from her mother literally with disturbing consequences. It is heart-warming too that the two gay men had the most fulfilling relationship. The quality of acting is strong, and humour makes an uncomfortable play palatable.
Initially, the drama is chaotic, later becoming increasingly sinister. The personification of suicide worked well for me; I felt these teenagers were each alone, each with different obsessions and sources of anxiety that they could neither articulate nor process. It is significant that each young person’s resilience threshold was different, and did not equate to the volume of negative experiences. As in real life, some people are more easily broken than others.
Some of the scenes are very explicit, which is of course the whole point; but it went further than I thought was necessary, and at times it seemed a desire to shock superseded the plot. Perhaps it gets in the way of the play's true aim, to raise big philosophical questions: is there a meaning to life? How do we navigate our way through it? Do we need a moral framework and if so, what should it look like? Is it different for each person? Are we masters of our own destiny and if not, who is? Is there a natural world order or is the world simply chaotic with events left to chance? Is there any rough justice or does Nietzschean nihilism ultimately triumph? Wendla says: “There is no right, no wrong, just stuff” – but the audience must make up their own mind.
On a practical note, visibility was poor from the side where I sat, a problem I felt could have been solved by a better layout of set and seating within the space. Some of the play’s force was also lost when the director pitched for support at the end – though Brief Hiatus is a promising Brighton theatre company that has done well to attract crowd funding, and legitimately needs exposure.
And so, with the proviso that Spring Awakening is not a play for the faint-hearted, it does succeed in the Brechtian tradition of epic drama. As long as you expect provocative, contemporary, explicit and at times crude theatre, it may well have an impact that endures. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Spring Awakening – but I will certainly remember and reflect on it.