Thursday, May 19, 2011

Exeter Northcott has always had a reputation for punching above its weight for a small university theatre, and despite last year's financial quake their programme is impressive. SATTF took The Comedy of Errors there last month, and now Sell A Door have chosen this venue to open their national tour of the controversial rock musical Spring Awakening.
It's a passionate show in every sense, with an exuberant young cast and some strong erotic moments from the lead couple ~ Jonathan Eiø as Melchior and Victoria Serra as Wendla.
Based on a German play written in 1891, it was banned for over fifty years for its frank look at adolescent sexuality and the inadequacy - and hypocrisy - of available guidance. It’s Skins meets Cabaret, the press release enthuses but from the start it's more like West Side Story as the teens hang around a playground and a starry-eyed young girl sings alone. Wendla is no Maria anticipating passion though: what she's yearning for is the truth about babies, which her prim mother refuses to impart. Repression is just as bad for the boys, stuck with a sadistic Latin teacher and sexual confusions summed up by Melchior: ‘The entire world is fixated by penis and vagina – well, I am’.
Inevitably these rites of passage are more wounding than wonderful, and the action is strewn with casualties before the Capulet-crypt-like final scene. Abused children, pregnancy from ignorance, homophobia, school-induced suicide... wouldn't it be great to think, 120 years on since Frank Wedekind shocked society with these home truths, we'd have got all that sorted? And actually if I had one reservation it'd be that this moral fable relied too much on ciphers to represent social issues rather than developed characters.
Nevertheless an exciting production well worth the long drive from Frome.

Equally as shocking an indictment of 19th century social attitudes, this time about real lives, Brontë is at Bath Theatre Royal in a Shared Experience production directed by Nancy Meckler. Polly Teale's play digs deep into the psyches and secrets of this famous family, showing the bickering and loneliness as well as the vivid imaginations that created a crucible for their iconic writings - and the reason for brother Branwell's tragic failure too. "We should be grateful for our obscurity," Emily comments candidly, "nothing was expected of us." Invading the intense minutiae of their actual lives are the writers' alter-ego characters, passionate and wild, articulating their longings and violence. Brilliant scripting and powerful performances from all the cast especially Charlotte (Kristin Atherton) and Emily (Elizabeth Crarer) whose mutual love, like their antipathy, is always painfully lucent.

And my one reservation: the aggressive air-con system in the Main House. I noticed scarves appearing in the shivering stalls but wasn't sufficiently equipped myself, it being now May, to withstand the icy assault. So, go see Brontë! - but wear your thermal vest.

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