Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind,
translated by Edward Bond. Presented by the
National Theatre Company at the Old Vie on
28 May 1974. Directed by Bill Bryden, designed
by Geoffrey Scott, costumes by Deirdre Clancy,
lighting by Andy Phillips.
Melchior Gabor, PETER FIRTH; Moritz Stiefel, MICHAEL KITCHEN; Hanschen Rilow. DAI BRADLEY; Ernst Robel, GERARD RYDER; Otto, DAVID DIXON; Georg Zirschnitz. KEITH SKINNER; Robert, MARTIN HOWELLS; Lammermeier, CHRISTOPHER GUARD; Wendla Bergmann, VERONICA QUILLIGAN; Martha Bessel, JANE CARR; Thea, JENNY AGUTTER; Ilse. PATTI LOVE; Dieter, RUPERT FRAZER; Reinhold, IAN McKENZIE; Rupert, JAMES SMITH; Helmut, GLYN GRAIN; Gaston, BRYAN BROWN; Herr Gabor, JOSEPH O'CONOR; Herr Stiefel. JAMES MELLOR; Frau Gabor, SUSAN ENGEL; Frau Bergmann, BERYL REID; Ina Muller, JUDITH PARIS: Headmaster Sunstroke, WILLIAM SQUIRE; Professor Gutgrinder. KENNETH BENDA; Professor Bonebreaker, ALEX McCRINDLE; Professor Tonguetwister, STEPHEN WILLIAMS; Professor Flyswatter, PETER NEEDHAM; Professor Thickstick, KENNETH MACKINTOSH; Professor Apelard, COLIN FAY; The Masked Man, CYRIL CUSACK; Dr Lemonade DANIEL THORNDIKE; Dr Procrustes, ALAN HAY; Uncle Probst, PETER ROCCA; Friend Zieg, GLYN GRAIN; Locksmith, PITT WILKINSON.
Photographs John Haynes
The National Theatre is doing its stuff when it presents a fine production of a comparatively neglected masterpiece in an adaptation by one of our great living writers. And Bill Bryden's production of Edward Bond's version of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening-quite apart from filling the bill-is fascinating in a variety of ways.
To begin with, of course, it's a highly political play. Its subject-an examination of social postures about sexuality and not, as many seem to assume, an assertion of the forbidden joys of sex-is, if you like, a metaphor for a far-reaching critique of a patriarchal social structure that subsisted in Wedekind's Germany and still obtains for us. The 'permissive society' (never more, surely, than a trendy ripple, a joke) has in no way diminished the play. It's still revolutionary in spirit. In which case, one wonders as always when such a play is mounted there, about its role and function and impact and influence at the Old Vic. What are those audiences making of it? Will they be changed at all?
This version is further intriguing as a sourcebook for Bond's own plays. I'm told that he and Bryden worked on the play as long ago as 1965, with a film in mind. So his study of the play must have preceded all his major work save Saved. It's not hard to see Bondian devices, images and even characters in Spring Awakening-the burial of Moritz making a pair with the burial in The Sea; the fable which anticipates fate; the desperate violence, sudden like a death; the pellucid cameos of authority; the notion of 'moral insanity'; the wall as all-purpose image of repressive structure; the austerity of language; the unquiet dead. Bond has nourished the central, resonant image of beheading. Frau Gabor writes to Moritz, 'Heads up, dear Stiefel' and, in the horrid, snarling fight in the reformatory, a lad avers 'I'll kick your head off'. Throughout, Bond has found characteristically economical, graphic and mordant lines to render character and, more particularly, roles. Ilse, reporting to Moritz on the decadent life she's discovered since leaving school, declares that 'life's much better when you're earning'. Herr Gabor, contemplating with his wife, before their redundant, one-pillowed marriage bed, the departure of their son to a reformatory, opines that children must be 'treated with solemn earnestness' and that Melchior will come to 'learn to put the good before the interesting'.
Imported from the Lyceum at Edinburgh, Bill Bryden has given this pre-Brecht play a post-Brecht production. The visual style of still, severe tableaux-like woodcuts, of archetypal figures caught at the end of their scenes in Lotte Reiniger silhouette, marries perfectly with Bond's writing. Clarity is the key-note. The actors move and then speak, forming distinct patterns, holding exact poses. It's at once sharply alienating and swiftly communi-cative. The adult males pass by in grotesque parades, gather ceremonially for judgements and obsequies, evoke 'the moral order of the universe' and know nothing, not even their own sons. The adult women, like the children, are crushed victims of this order. Frau Bergmann (Beryl Reid proving my conviction that there's no actor's training like 20 years of random comedy) goes in dread of concepts, lives a reflex emotion of protective warmth and precipitates the death of her child. 'Be quiet, Wendla, be quiet, you have anaemia' she says in a sort of distant chant to keep the devil-the truth-at bay. It's a performance of exquisite, unearthly simplicity, heralding a great Bond-Brecht actress. Frau Gabor is a victim too but Susan Engel's sensuality makes her more ambiguous. The movements in her scene with Melchior and Moritz are much softer and rather more elaborate than in the out-door scenes. I sensed some intrusive attempts at seductive implication that muffled the surface here. Bryden doesn't entirely bring off the last scene either, dressing Cyril Cusack's Masked Man like a charming cynic stopping by between parties. Admittedly the Mephistofelian figure is an awkward device for a modern English production. But Cusack's lightly ironic tone and manner add a bit too much mystification.
The adolescents acquit themselves admirably. Michael Kitchen elucidates Moritz' bewilderment with shrewdness and humour. Swallowed whole by the practical world, he finds no time, no space for adventure, for extension. Kitchen holds himself very still and projects simply from the head as befits a guy who will blow his own brains out. Peter Firth's Melchior is a young equus, very nearly tossing his mane and pawing the ground, military and arrogant but in check like a racehorse at the gate. Later, in his limbo, his movements and speech become a disorientation of the earlier precise stylisation, though he seems less secure with the meaning of the lines. But he and Veronica Quilligan together, much anticipated, are superb- sharp and subtle and knowing and beautiful, her dark Irish romanticism set against his detached North of England superiority. Their Romeo and Juliet ought to be a revelation. Dai Bradley's Hans is a virtuoso effort, full of awkward and loquacious passion. His touching scene with Ernst culminates in the dashing of a triumphantly romantic image-two boys with intimations of mortality walk hand-in-hand into the sunset; then they're blotted out by the rising wall of Melchior's limbo. In a small part, Jane Carr invests Martha with a brisk, plummy opinionation, interestingly suggesting that her plaints about ill-treatment might be self-dramatising fantasy. Then she and Wendla and Thea make a lovely tableau of linked-armed graces, looking into the circumscribed horizon of girlhood.
Much more telling, my memory suggests, than Peter Zadek's Bremen Theatre production at the 1967 World Theatre Season, this is the National at its most acute and alive. Spring Awakening deserves as wide an audience as social criticism can reach. And it deserves the compliment of some offended and outraged customers too.