Spring Awakening: “pushing the genre”

Clockwise: Elissa Churchill (Wendla Bergmann), Lizzie McGhee (Anna), Meriel Killeen (Martha Bessell), Clemmie Medforth (Ilse Neumann), Jen Bullock (Thea) and Clara Duncan (Adult)

Isabelle Culkin speaks to DULOG to discuss their upcoming production of ‘Spring Awakening’, and why it is as resonant and subversive as ever. 

Spring Awakening has attacked conformist morals and sexual repression, but also has historically been subsequently suppressed. It has its own blacklisted history, having been banned from the British stage because of its very vivid depiction of teenage sexuality. It has also won eight Tony awards and experienced a sold out run at the Lyric Hammersmith. It’s had a conflicted reception to say the least.

This coming-of-age musical also marks another coming-of age: it’s many long-term DULOG-ers last musical in Durham. DULOG will be waving goodbye to twice DST president Daniel Gosselin, the extremely talented Russell Lamb and golden girl Elissa Churchill. Gosselin is assistant directing and technical directing and Lamb and Churchill are playing Moritz Stiefel and Wendla Bergmann respectively.

Following the immense success of Cabaret, Izzy Osborne also returns to direct this production, which will also be her last musical at Durham. Spring Awakening is certainly just as risqué and in-your-face as Cabaret, but in very different ways. It explores issues of homosexuality, child abuse and masturbation. Set in 19th century Germany, it depicts a group of teenagers who have been brought up ignorant of how to deal with their growing sexuality.

When I arrive at the gym in which they are rehearsing, the sound of “All That’s Known” resonates through the walls. As I walk in, it is unsurprising to see that DULOG don’t do things half-heartedly. Every fist-bump and foot pulse is fully committed, and they later explain why this is particularly necessary for this musical. Joe McWilliam, playing Melchior Gabor, says “it’s very different from any other musical in that the songs are literally what the characters are feeling, and if you let that high level of emotion or energy drop, then you just lose it”.

Joe McWilliam (Melchior Gabor) and Elissa Churchill (Wendla Bergmann)

The musical is by no means an easy feat. Izzy Osborne says “it’s hard because you’re dealing with a lot of difficult issues: there’s a sex scene in it and there’s a song about abuse. There are also some songs which are very poetic, so it’s been hard for me and Dan to wrangle the meaning out of them”. The characters always occupy the stage space, and never leave its parameters throughout the performance, and therefore it’s equally challenging and different to anything she has ever directed before because “there’s no transition, there’s no coming offstage, everything seamlessly flows into everything”. Dan Gosselin agrees: “the flow of the production is really important, because if the flow is disturbed then it ruins the entire thing”.

“DULOG don’t do things half-heartedly”

Spring Awakening is frequently compared with musicals such as Hair and Rent. DULOG has previously performed both musicals, so as Elissa Churchill, who is also currently DULOG secretary, says, DULOG aptly “felt that it was the right time for it”. She continues “it appeals to people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves musical theatre people” since it’s not just “your normal, cheesy musical”. It has a unique folk-infused rock score. The cast agree that the music is very special. Clemmie Medforth, playing Ilse Neumann, says “it’s quite an ensemble piece” since “there are so many harmonies in the music, which is really special”. It still has many “solo pieces which have quite a rock-ish feel to them, so you kind of have a bit of everything”.

Charlie Keable (Hanschen Rilow), Sam McKay (Georg Zirschnitz), Joe McWilliam (Melchior Gabor) and Jake Goldman (Otto Lämmermeier)

It belongs to a catalogue of musicals which are purposed to do more than just entertain. Elissa Churchill says “it’s just pushing the genre, I think a lot of modern musical writers do the exact same things as plays have done. Plays have evolved from entertaining farces to come to consider real issues” and “the creator’s choice to use modern music could be argued as a way of showing how the approach towards sex and sexuality is still very much the same today”.

“How will we know what to do if our parents don’t tell us?” is a line which sums up the tone of the play. Izzy Osborne says “they’re so repressed; they don’t know how to grow up by themselves”. Spring Awakening accurately expresses the angst and frustration which teenagers constantly war with against their parents. Teenagers and students alike have lapped up Spring Awakening in the past, because the turbulence which is so central to its subject is such a universal feeling, and it could easily prove a similar success in Durham.

Spring Awakening is essentially a musical in which angsty, repressed teenagers are permitted a literal and artistic licence, which they have so frequently been denied: to express themselves.

Spring Awakening is at The Assembly Rooms theatre from Wed 10 June to Sat 13 June.

Photographs: Isabelle Culkin


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