14 May 2017

Review: Awakening

and fortyfivedownstairs
11 May 2017
to 21 May

MUST, Awakening. Photo by Theresa Harrison

Spoiler alert: the last paragraph discusses the ending. 

MUST's production of Awakening was one of my favourite shows in 2016.  It gave me a fist-size ball of pain under my heart but ultimately left me so happy that young theatre makers are confronting the bullshit that surrounds them and are showing us that we can and will overcome the trauma and pain that threaten to define us. Thankfully, fortyfivedownstairs also saw what a remarkable work it was and have given it a second season.

Written and directed by Daniel Lammin, it’s a response to Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening. The story is often sub-titled "A children's tragedy" and was censored and banned for many years as it confronts sex, masturbation, rape, abortion, abuse, depression, suicide, religious hypocrisy and adults’ failure to educate, love and look after the children in their care. It's also known because of the Tony-winning 2006 musical adaption (Stage Art's production begins on 19 May).

Lammin has removed some characters and, with a cast of six, focuses on the stories of 14-year-old Wendla and Melchior. Sharing the roles – the three women play Wendla and the three men play Melchior – takes away the easy-to-distance focus of one character's decisions and lets us see, and feel, far more complex points of view.

It also lets us get closer to the cast: Nicola Dupree, Samantha Hafey-Bagg, Eamonn Johnson, James Malcher, Sam Porter and Imogen Walsh. Each had moments that broke my heart and each find the emotional truth in all the characters they play, often showing a side of the story that's easy to reject or forget, or too painful to confront.

The first half remains in the 1890s and while it reaches to now with music and experience, its story of sexual repression is so infuriatingly familiar that it's impossible to dismiss the fear that we're not getting better as a society.

After the gut-punch anger of Act 1, the second half does bring the story into now and confronts our complicity of living in a world that still allows children and teenagers to be so hurt.

Lammin and his cast were developing the piece when Safe Schools was being attacked last year. I don't have the words to describe the unthinkable selfish ignorance of anyone who wants to shame a child, and to see children being shamed by our government, media, schools and community leaders is the shame my generation of adults will have to live with. It's almost a follow up to Hannah Gadsby's astonishing Nanette at MICF. It's easy to talk about protecting children, but these are the children and they are still hurting and being hurt in ways that are unacceptable.

While the last scenes are relentless in their pain and their search for hope and explanation, the story doesn't end with shame and anger. The original ending is easy to predict because young men still take their own lives and it's a standard story move to remove a young woman who is raped and inconveniences everyone around her.

This Awakening rejects that and changes Wendla's story. It gives her power and strength and everything that is taken away from her in the emotive and too-often-repeated story.

It still left me with a ball of pain under my heart, but as long as we keep telling stories like this, we will overcome the ignorance and we will get better as a society.