FRANK Wedekind’s Spring Awakening caused riots when it was first performed in Germany in 1906, so provocative was this tale of adolescent sexuality.
Issues such as suicide, abortion and rape were too hard to digest for audiences at the time and the play has been little seen since and those who have dared to stage it have often watered it down.
Now the Headlong company is confronting it in an age where teenagers are no longer kept in the dark but are assaulted by sexual imagery from all directions.
So Anya Reiss has reworked Wedekind’s definitive play for a new generation and director Ben Kidd uses video projections and music to make it just as authentic as it ever was.
Ben says: “It’s an extraordinarily fresh, modern, punky and dangerous play. It has a youthful feel, a bit like pop music to me, rough around the edges but very exciting.
“It’s quite well-known by theatre types but not often performed. That’s because it is quite shocking and you don’t often come across a play like that.”
Ben also thinks it has lost none of its power despite modern audiences being used to taboos being broken.
“Some things are always daring,” he says. “We as a society still don’t have an easy time discussing sexuality in younger people.
“The play also makes a link between that and the point in life when teenagers are starting to seriously think about life and death. It’s that cusp of life that’s very interesting.
“I still vividly remember being 14 or 15 and those questions coming up and being on the verge of being an adult but being unsure how to get there.
“I wanted to capture all that and the oddness and quirkiness of the original play.
“Anya was an obvious person to tackle it because she’s young and is able to capture the voice of her generation.”
Ben says that what surprises many theatre-goers is that a lot of the key incidents that they assume are modern up dates are actually in the original.
“What we were trying to do was to find out if those things still made sense in a very different world for young people.”
The big difference between rural Germany of a century or more ago and modern Britain is the way young people are now saturated by sex on TV, in pop videos and on the internet.
Ben says: “Wedekind was coming from a point of view that young people were thinking about sex so we should talk to them about it. For better or worse we now do and have sex education at schools. But when you look at the play the mistakes young people make, the things they are confused about are all the same. Why is that? The contention we are putting forward is that despite of, or maybe because of, the vast amount of sexual imagery young people are exposed to, that doesn’t mean they are comfortable with their bodies and are not scared by lots of questions.
“Maybe the result of things like a provocative Miley Cyrus video is that young people feel they should know everything and they don’t. There’s a pressure on teenagers to talk with confidence but they don’t seem to have the ability or right to say ‘help, I don’t understand’.”
The production showcases its story by deploying video and music.
“Its techniques that evoke the feelings of the world you are trying to create,” says Ben. “It’s also how young people interact. Video is how they style themselves and convey their own image.
“Wedekind celebrated youth culture. He was interested in the vibrancy of being young that makes you want to be there again. From the outside they look so cool and exclusive but that doesn’t mean that if you are on the inside you aren’t scared and concerned.”
Spring Awakening can be seen at Derby Theatre from May 28 to 31. Go to www.derbytheatre.co.uk