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Hamilton Fringe 2011
Spring Awakening
by Frank Wedekind; translated by Edward Bond
Director: Calvin Petersen
Performed by: Pinching The Mint Youth Theatre Company

at Meteor Theatre, Hamilton
From 26 Sep 2011 to 27 Sep 2011

Reviewed by Gail Pittaway, 29 Sep 2011

New to the Hamilton Theatre scene is Pinching the Mint Youth Theatre, a company of actors plucked from student life, from high school to tertiary age. Calvin Petersen, the production's director, is already well known locally for his comic talent as an actor. Here he takes on an entirely new challenge: Franz Wedekind's 1890s play about young persons (as Petersen says in his director's note, teen age was not a concept known at the time).

This translation by Edward Bond is a little stilted – more alienation than expressionist – however in the hands of such a young company it takes on new energy; no longer a tired controversial classic that no-one under 35 wants to tackle, it becomes a remarkably relevant presentation of the world through the eyes of the young before hormones were discovered, but while people were still tormented by them.

Even after 120 years Spring Awakening is a challenge: onstage rape, masturbation scenes – one solo, one group – a homosexual love scene and, to top it all off, a headless corpse in a graveyard. Even 21st century audiences blanch or gasp at one or all of these. In its time it was considered a pornographic play.

Then there's the length of the play (about 150 minutes), much of it with teenagers asking about sex and getting denied honest answers. But this too is topical, while sex education in schools is being debated in NZ and further afield. Now experts are saying it is not enough to give technical knowledge about sex – people need to understand their emotional responses to others as well. This play is a text book case for the proponents of such education! 

The play's perspective is strongly that of the young Melchior (Jacques Fourie), Moritz (Ari Nuttal) and Wendla (Rachel Clarke), and their circles of friends who are melodramatic, solipsistic, but seen as heroically seeking answers. The older generation – their parents, teachers, professors and authority figures – are caricatures; a conspiracy of double standards and platitudes. This tension between melodramatic tragedy and comedy gives the play its expressionist style.

Peterson's direction is innovative and unafraid of breaking down the fourth wall to include direct address to the audience and involve them in the action, even to the extent of getting them to hold on to images of naked women while one of the school boys masturbates into a desk!

Most extraordinary is Peterson's set design which coops the stage area into one small corner of the large Meteor Theatre floor space, then constructs the set using over a dozen mattresses – mostly single – and a few school desks to represent inside, outside, school, homes, institutions, boardrooms, dormitories. It's an exciting device and, while occasionally there is a bit too much inter-scene fussing over these by an army of willing helpers, for the most part, stained and patched as some are, the mattresses serve the concerns of the play brilliantly well. The teenagers fling themselves down on them in pique or joy, then loll on them and wonder. A mattress becomes the grave of one character, a coffin for another then, with a grab of the handles and a flick, the scene is changed.  

The desks also come into their own; one is masturbated into in an exceptional display of frenzy by Michael Burrow (who is also outstanding in several other roles), the parents sit on them in the Bergman household, or use them as a kitchen sink in the Gabor home, as Herr and Frau Gabor (Jeremy Millar and Kate Magazinovic in one of several roles each) reflect on the plight of their son over the washing up. When Melchior is brought before the school authorities and a particularly nasty Lammermeier (James Cain) enunciates a sentence upon him, a row of desks is used as a power barricade by the school board, who nonetheless must crouch to get this effect as there are no chairs. It's a Lilliputian moment, undercutting their power.

At the height of the tragedy the play deals with teen suicide and pregnancy. Both are attributed to dishonesty and misrepresentation; an inability to judge or cope against the repressive and incomplete mores that those in authority or control provide. Parents are shown as incompetent, well-meaning, but dishonest, but even worse are the teachers, doctors and professors who call pregnancy “anaemia “ and sexual curiosity “perversion”.

Nuttal, Fourie and Clarke are all well cast in their leading roles as the key young players in the story, managing to make them sincere even at their most melodramatic. The relationship between the two boys, Melchior and Moritz, is played to the audience as well as each other, almost as a rhetorical device, and this adds to the stilted nature of the characterisation as much as the over-wordy translated dialogue. Yet this gives an almost ritualised inevitability to their individual actions.

More ‘naturalistic' are the relationships between Wendla and her friends and with her mother, Frau Bergman, played by Kate Davison. This is one of the few genuinely loving connections in the play, with the mother attempting to traverse the no man's land between platitude and truth, out of love for her daughter. Kate Davison gives an emotional reading of this part, as the most sympathetic adult in the play.

Petersen himself appears in a small part, also directing placement of mattresses but dressed in grey school uniform, as are most of the males in the cast. The school shorts in particular show how school control diminishes the wearer. James Cain shows his versatility in the several parts he plays, almost insinuating himself off the stage with spite in the school boardroom then coming in as a sepulchral masked figure at the end.

The rest of the cast take on several roles or double as mattresses wranglers, with efficiency and care. There are some stilted performances but the style and themes of the play accommodate their inexperience and efforts.

Even those of us who grew up in relatively liberal educations and homes will empathise with the longing to know to find out or be told, let alone experience, the extraordinary peculiarities of sex. Despite the sprawling unevenness of the play itself this is a great debut from a new theatre company and an exceptional piece of direction from our newest director, Calvin Petersen.  

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