Why Frank Wedekind's seminal play Spring Awakening still resonates
Grid Iron unleash new production at Traverse, Edinburgh
As Grid Iron unleashes a new production of Spring Awakening, Yasmin Sulaiman asks why Frank Wedekind’s seminal play still resonates with modern audiences
Frank Wedekind’s seminal drama Spring Awakening has experienced a renaissance in recent years. The often banned 1891 play, which portrays 14-year-olds grappling with ideas of sexuality, death and religion in the prohibitive climate of late 19th century Germany, was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical in 2006. However, novelist Jonathan Franzen also released a new English translation of the play in 2007 and a film of the musical is slated for 2011. The latest re-working of Wedekind’s classic is a co-production between the Traverse and Grid Iron that has been six years in the making, in which the action is transposed to the Calvinist society of turn of the century Scotland.
Grid Iron has attracted acclaim for its innovative site-specific productions, such as last year’s Charles Bukoswki-inspired Barflies at the Barony bar. In contrast, Spring Awakening’s Traverse 1 setting seems relatively conventional but director and Grid Iron co-founder Ben Harrison is excited about the possibilities of working in the space. ‘We’re trying to do it really simply,’ he explains. ‘The idea of the production is that it’s all within the logic of a classroom even though many things don’t happen in the classroom – they also happen in the bedroom, in a graveyard – but we tell the story with chalk, blackboards, desks and chairs. Everything should appear as if it’s imagined by a 14-year-old.’
This stripped back ethos is also reflected in the script. Written by Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell, who also wrote Grid Iron’s show Decky Does a Bronco, the production culls Spring Awakening’s usually large cast to just eight characters. And though the events of the play take place over a century ago, Harrison believes the existential and sexual anguish felt by its central characters transcends the limits of time. He says: ‘I was clearing out my room at my parents’ house the other day and I came across these terribly angsty poems. They were terrible, but at the time they were everything. It’s part of growing up – you go through a phase of believing that you’re the only person who fell in love or had an amazing thought about the world. I was very certain about things. And then I spent most of my 20s and 30s feeling less certain about everything.’
Harrison, a fan of the Broadway version, insists that Wedekind’s vision in Spring Awakening isn’t a totally bleak one, describing Maxwell’s script as ‘much funnier than imagined’. ‘So much work is about how miserable it is to be a teenager,’ he says. ‘Wedekind said this play should be full of joy and sunlight. When you read it on the page, you think that’s a bit of a hard task, but he’s right because there is an enormous and powerful potential in adolescence.’ And despite the plethora of adaptations of Wedekind’s drama, he believes that the Grid Iron-Traverse co-production still has something new to offer. ‘I think it’ll be interesting to see the perceptions people have of the play because of the musical’s success. But ours is a very quiet piece of work, it’s very restrained. Even if you’re familiar with the play, it may surprise you.’
Spring Awakening, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 29 Oct–Sat 13 Nov.