Theatre: ON THE FRINGE

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The Independent Culture
How many 19th-century plays can boast a rough deflowering in a hayloft, two boys kissing, a teenage porn user, and two masturbation scenes? No one could accuse the German, Frank Wedekind, of not practising what he preached in Spring Awakening (BAC). His text is the gospel of sexual openness, and it is ignorance of sex (or what many of his more conservative contemporaries might call "innocence") that prompts the play's twin tragedies.

Sweet, virginal Wendla (the excellent Zoe Hart) dies in childbirth because her doting mother insists on talking to her 15-year-old daughter about the stork. Gawky, repressed Moritz is tortured by the conflict between desire and duty. And his friend Melchior, a gilded youth with a glamorous liberal mother, is left to light the blue touch paper. He explains the facts of life to Moritz in a booklet sexily entitled "Copulation", unwittingly helping to drive his unstable schoolmate over the edge. For that, and for getting Wendla pregnant, Melchior's reward is borstal.

Wedekind was 26 when he penned Spring Awakening, an angry young man sticking two fingers up at the establishment. Watching Greenwich Studio Theatre's solid revival, his mixture of youthful iconoclasm and melodrama can sometimes be wearying, but there are compensations. When the play steps away from didacticism and interests itself in psychology, it offers moments of shuddering strangeness. What, for example, would a psychiatrist make of this? When Wendla's friend Eva reveals that she is often thrashed by her father, Wendla says she has never been beaten. Later, however, as she flirts with Melchior, she asks him to fill in this gap in her experience - just so that she knows what it feels like. As he half-heartedly goes at her with a stick, she chides him, "You're stroking me."

It's a scene that, at once explicit and elliptical in its treatment of sex, is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy at his oddest and best. (Interestingly, Hardy published Tess of the D'Urbevilles in 1891.) Moritz takes up this sado-masochistic theme later when, having finally learnt about sex, he exclaims, "O Melchior, it must be so much more sweet to be the victim rather than the perpetrator."

If Wedekind broke new ground in subject matter, he also experimented wildly with form. Although an admirer of Ibsen, he was wary about the limits of naturalism. So, in Spring Awakening, the early, naturalistic scenes steadily give way to fantasy: schoolmasters smugly waltzing with one another, a talking corpse, a mysterious (and leadenly symbolic) gentleman who saves Melchior from suicide. This bumpy tone makes the play a nightmare to stage. Margarete Forsyth's unfussy, generally well-acted production has a good shot at it. But the flights into fantasy seem rather earthbound, as if Forsyth and her company have no taste for Wedekind's brand of theatrical rule-breaking.

Lesbianism is about the only sexual mainstay that doesn't get a look in during Spring Awakening. For that you have to go downstairs to Studio 1 to see Schoolgirls in Uniform, Christa Winsloe's 1931 play about a girls' boarding school where the daughters of aristocratic Prussian soldiers are ruled with an iron rod. Before the dirty-mac brigade descends on BAC, however, I should point out that bodily contact is minimal (the raunchiest it gets is a kiss on the wrist), but the atmosphere is fetid with schoolgirl pashes and the pillows are damp with frustrated tears. You could cut the hormones in the air with a knife as the new girl Manuela develops a crush on the alluring young teacher Fraulein von Bernberg. The consequences are predictably tragic.

Winsloe's play has several threads. First, it's an impassioned plea for education that respects the individual. Second, it's an implicit criticism of Prussia's backward-looking imperialism during the years of the Weimar Republic. Third, it's a tawdry little melodrama (a very well-acted tawdry little melodrama, it must said), full of breathy sentiments like Manuela's "I understand only beautiful or ugly feelings. What indecent feelings are I don't know." Forty years after Spring Awakening, this kind of antiseptic romanticism doesn't seem like progress.

'Spring Awakening' and 'Schoolgirls in Uniform' to 1 June, BAC, London SW11. Booking: 0171-223 2223

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