Walking into the OFS, the foot-high words spelling out “sex” and “masturbation” across the set and the recording of overlaid lines from the play, led me to expect a cross between a Tate Modern installation and a particularly sensational episode of Skins. But these cheap shock tactics were not at all characteristic of what subsequently proved to be a moving, thoughtful and at times genuinely shocking production.
Wedekind’s Spring Awakening is the story of a group of fourteen year olds trying to come to terms with their sexuality and negotiate their place in society amidst the strict, hypocritical religious mores of nineteenth century Germany. Its unequivocal treatment of issues like rape, masturbation, homosexuality, abortion, paedophilia and suicide makes it feel like something that could have been written today rather than in 1891 and it interrogates all these taboos intelligently without milking them merely for shock value. It does not always make for easy or pleasant viewing, but is all the stronger for being able to shake its audience out of complacency.
The Oxford Brookes team are to be commended for their successful adaptation of what is without doubt a difficult play. The action was fast-paced, well-staged and compelling throughout and the lead performances were all of a high standard. Praise is particularly due to Will Hatcher for his convincing portrayal of the tortured intellectual Melchior and to Lucie Cox for her turn as the thoroughly good but dangerously innocent Wendla. They interacted well with one another and their sensitively portrayed scenes of beating and rape were some of the most effective of the show. Scott Newman took on the demanding role of Moritz, conveying his confusion, desperation and insecurity with heart-wringing pathos. The supporting actors also did well, especially Rebecca Moore in her multiple roles. There were, however, a few minor weaknesses such as the gay subplot between Hans and Ernst which was never very convincing.
Spring Awakening is a harrowing but very compelling and intelligent play and this production has managed to find the right balance between shock and thoughtfulness, sensationalism and private tragedy. Watching it may not always be a pleasant experience but it is certainly one well worth the price of a ticket.