Controversial play is given new life by young playwright

Playwright Anya Reiss and director Ben Kidd. Picture: Tristram Kenton
Playwright Anya Reiss and director Ben Kidd. Picture: Tristram Kenton
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At the launch of the current season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the artistic leaders of the theatre appeared particularly excited about one particular production.

Spring Awakening, the controversial play by German writer Frank Wedekind was the production causing the creatives to stir. Sure, it has always come with plenty of controversy, its exploration of repressed sexuality a major cause of shock – but that was over a century ago, when the play first arrived on stages.

No, Wedekind’s play does not retain the power to shock, not today, not in its original form – but the production which arrives at the Playhouse next week will not be Wedekind’s version.

The writer is the first reason why the Playhouse was so excited to bring this version to the theatre. Written by a playwright for whom the word precocious might have been coined, Anya Reiss was a teenager when she started writing for the Royal Court.

There are lots of other reasons why the Playhouse creatives were salivating at the prospect of getting to share this little jewel in their season.

Spring Awakening marks the beginning of a three-year partnership between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and theatre production company Headlong. Anyone who saw the production of 1984, which Headlong brought to the theatre last year, will know why this singular group of theatre makers are such an exciting addition to the list of companies the Playhouse will be working with in the future.

The creators will hope the first fruits of this new collaboration won’t cause quite the same stir as the 
first premiere of Wedekind’s story.

Opened in 1906, it caused riots. The cause? Well, it did tackle head-on issues such as adolescent sexuality, suicide, abortion and rape.

It has been brought bang up to date by Headlong in a version that acknowledges we now live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by overtly sexual images and messages and where the ease of pornography accessed by children is debated in parliament.

Director Ben Kidd says: “When Wedekind first wrote the play, he was fairly sure its explicit content meant it would never be performed.

“It finally was, in Germany 15 years later, but only under heavy censorship.

“The play’s ability to shock continued long beyond that first performance – when it first opened in New York in 1917, it closed after one night and it was banned in the UK as late as 1965.”

While the production arriving at the Playhouse next week might not be quite as shocking as the German original, there is no doubt that Reiss, in her 20s just as Wedekind was when he first wrote the piece, has created something about teenage sexuality that is sure to raise a few eyebrows.

Kidd adds: “Wedekind’s wildness and refusal to conform gives us hints when staging his work, but I also think it explains how he was able to capture the thrill and vitality of youth so strangely and luridly in Spring Awakening.

“There seems to be something driving Wedekind that is to do with rules and the fact that we grow into them. That one of the defining characteristics of growing up is the feeling that there is no ‘proper’ way to do things.

“As he put it himself, ‘the fog is clearing, life is a matter of taste’.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse, March 7 to 22. Tickets 0113 2137700.