Youth mirrors its own image
The most startling, the best play about adolescence in 100 years. That is Tim Supple's verdict on Spring Awakening, the play written by Frank Wedekind in 1891, which he is directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ted Hughes' new translation keeps close to the original German while emphasising the poetry, the spiritual, psycho-sexual and mythological elements which parallel the social comment.
The young people in Spring Awakening are 14 or so, on the verge of adulthood, but kept in ignorance of the sexual urges underlying their confusing emotions and fantasies. They are under pressure at school, to the extent that suicide has become an epidemic among teenage boys. Wedekind handles his subject with such honesty, such ferocious intensity that, even now, audiences may find some scenes shocking, especially the ones showing masturbation and Moritz's contemplation of suicide.
Teenage actors have been recruited to take the main roles. Barry Farrimond, who plays Moritz is 15, Andrew Falvey (Melchior) is 17 and Ellie Beaven (Wendla) is 15. So far, after the first preview, no-one's parent had mentioned the masturbation scene, which the teenage actors assumed meant they were broad-minded enough for comfort.
Barry, Andrew and Ellie talk easily about the play, about the significance of the strange masked man, for instance, who hovers on the edge of the action - "the governor of death", says Andrew, "whose job it is to stop people committing suicide." The whole play, Barry says, is about "confronting things". Ellie's character is so naive that she doesn't realise what is happening when Melchior rapes her and cannot believe that she is pregnant because she is not married. It is not easy for a modern teenager to imagine such ignorance, but Ellie says she finds the relationship between parents and children more or less the same as ever.
Melchior is judged and punished for writing biological explanations of sex by a committee of his teachers who are mercilessly satirised by Wedekind as trivial-minded, small-town bourgeoisie wielding power without sympathy. Melchior is an intellectual, a philosopher. Supple says that this is a difficulty for modern youngsters in a non-intellectual age. The characters are mentally mature but emotionally (by modern standards) very young. The mismatch has tragic consequences.
Supple has found it exciting to work with unknown young actors (and, judging by the uninhibited strength of their performances on the press night, his faith is justified). "There are fewer blocks for them in this intense emotional and sexual stuff - they just do it." Storms, flowers and spring sunshine provide Wedekind with instinctive symbolism. "Nature", says Supple "is closely twinned with the children's nature in opposition to the claustrophobic social mores. " Then he adds sadly: "The moment of greatest freshness and fulness is when we are on the verge of decay."
In repertoire at The Pit, Barbican Centre. Tickets: 0171 638 8891