Can actors convincingly portray characters of a much older or younger age? I think it’s possible, but it is an exception. All too often, young actors will play the caricature or common perception of a child or an older person. Unfortunately, Pat Garrett’s production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening was the rule and not the exception. The actors were either too old to play the fresh, budding teenagers and too young to play their concerned and often severe parents with any conviction.
Ian Mairs, who played Moritz Stiefel, has to serve as the pars pro toto here. His memory of being 14 manifested itself on stage in a lot of huffing and puffing, and an unnervingly high-pitched voice. Most of the other actors (Natalie Christopher, Russell Anthony, Jack Burns, Casey O’Connor) had similar problems with the youthful male crowd, making it difficult to differentiate between them. Only Leon Wander as Melchior Gabor was more convincing, because he didn’t opt for impressions of childlike behaviour, but correctly located the essence of being young in the overabundance of energy only partly restrained. The female characters tended to be more successful overall. Sophie Caruana as Martha Bessel, and especially Niesha Dell as Wendla Bergmann, seemed to be more in tune with their younger selves; I began to wonder if the ability to preserve one’s ‘inner child’ is not a female quality.
Suffice it to say that the acting as a whole did not convince me. This was exacerbated by the fact that Garrett chose to ignore Wedekind’s heightened language, and instead approached the play like a ‘kitchen sink drama’. There was no build-up of tension, neither in the scene where Wendla is beaten, nor when she has sex with Melchior. The imaginative faculty did not come into play. The only delightful exception was Ilsa’s (Dervla Toal) role as a fairy-like creature, who was able to conjure a sense with nature with a long green sash and a piece of red velvet.
If Spring Awakening were a painting, it would resemble the works of German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. This production was more like Biedermeier naturalism. This was especially noticeable towards the end, where Wedekind turns to the surreal for good. But instead of showing the beheaded Moritz as per the stage direction in the play, we are presented with the feeble solution of a whitened face and a tiny red hole where the bullet had entered Moritz’ head. Disappointing. And the mysterious Black Man, rescuer and father-figure, played by Wedekind himself in the original first production, here deteriorated into a mundane and pompously fool strutting about with a Venetian mask.
The production had its moments, such as the extremely funny masturbation scene. Or the incredible subversion of authority in the teachers’ conference scene where the headmaster was enthroned up high, with a table in the form of a piece of cloth extending down from him to the other teachers. It created a three-dimensional tableau full of fascinating spatial dynamics. Moreover, this was the only scene when the actors’ age felt right. But unfortunately, over the three hours, these moments were too few to salvage the night from the dregs of cliché. This piece of fringe theatre, revealed itself to be far more conventional than the ‘mainstream’, but with far less skilful acting.