Thursday, May 08, 2014

Teenage angst in the internet age - Headlong theatre's "SpringAwakening"

Teenage angst will always be with us, but how it manifests itself changes over the years. I entered my teen years in 1959 which was, of course, a few years before sexual intercourse began (in 1963 - between the end of the "Chatterley" ban and the Beatles' first LP). We didn't have pornography then - though there was a trade in "Health and Efficiency" magazine at my Public School. "Health and Efficiency" revealed the startling fact that women had breasts - a fact that might otherwise have passed us by in those pre Page 3 days and at a single sex school. Curiously I can't recall sex being a particularly live topic in those teenage years - partly because nobody knew the first thing about it and partly because nobody chose to tell us. Perhaps there was bromide in our tea and perhaps because what naughty business there was was boy with boy - a furtive grope in the showers and what Christopher Hitchens (he was at the same school as me and at the same time) called the nightly "...evenly matched, single combat between chaps and their cocks." or those occasional participative and "vigorous sessions of mutual relief without a word being spoken, even without eye contact". I mention all this to establish that I have few if any personal credentials to review the teenage angst drama "Spring Awakening" which describes a very different adolescent world from mine. Add the fact that as a non-parent I haven't had to wrestle with the troubles of pubescent children of my own - or anybody else's for that matter - and my lack of qualification is clear. But nothing ventured...

The version of "Spring Awakening" by the brilliant "Headlong" theatre company, and now on tour, was written by the precociously talented Anya Reiss who at 22 already has plenty of successfully performed work on her CV. The original play, by Frank Wedekind, dates back to the last decade of the 19th. century, although it's first production under Max Reinhardt wasn't until 1906. In his essay on Wedekind (quoted in the programme) Jonathan Franzen says that the author "...knew that the content of the play - suicide, rape, teenage pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality and masturbation - made it unlikely that it would ever be performed". Indeed! In fact it did receive a number of productions over the years although usually heavily censored and cut. The first uncut UK production was at the National Theatre in 1974.

To place the drama in the present day, as Anya Reiss and Headlong have done, you have to believe that the core of the story remains relevant. And that means that hormonally supercharged teenagers will be fascinated by sex, despite being largely ignorant of it, and that the consequences of this can be damaging, even dangerous. That was, is and no doubt always will be to some extent true. However I just wonder whether the ignorance today can still be quite as extreme as Ms Reiss's version would ask us to believe. On the same night that I saw the play at Richmond Theatre Kirsty Wark's documentary "Blurred Lines" about the sexual harassment of women online was shown on the BBC. A scene in that programme had children of the same age as the characters in the play frankly and maturely talking about sex - and being guided in their discussions in a school classroom by a skilled teacher. Perhaps this was exceptional but surely Wendla, the girl who is forced into sex in the play would not in modern Britain be under the delusion that you can only get pregnant if you love the man you have sex with - as we are asked to believe.  Surely part of the reason that teenage pregnancies in Britain are the lowest since records began is better sex education in schools?

The play shows what we all know to be true from our own experience that growing up - especially once puberty cuts in - is difficult. Physically we are mature, but emotionally we are not and that causes conflict and means that we need help. We seek explanations at the same  time that we experiment. The internet has all the answers and if you are unsure what (for example) Fellatio is you can Google up the answer and watch a video. In my day we'd probably have assumed that he was a footballer with Inter Milan. So the problem is not information - it's making choices between competing truths and deciding what is important. Any attempt to stop children seeing Porn will fail. So start from that premise and decide what the risks are - they will be very child specific. The tragedies in "Spring Awakening", especially the suicide, come not from the failures of the children but from the inability of the adult world around them to recognise emotional need. 

I found "Spring Awakening" shocking and difficult. But I don't think that I am the principal target for the message of the play nor a likely beneficiary of having seen it. It is good drama, very well performed and cleverly staged - if a bit over frantic at times! I am of a generation which grew up when sex was not discussed at all - at home or, in my case, at school. Was I repressed and ignorant as a result? Undoubtedly. Would I have benefited if the internet had been around in my teens? I think that I would. Ignorance is not bliss and it is never a folly to be wise. Was the comparative innocence of my childhood better than the explicitness and information overload of today. I don't think that it was at all. But what above all "Spring Awakening" shows us is that parenting and teaching have to reflect the new online paradigm - social networking, information accessibility and porn as well. There is nothing children can't find out today if they want to - it's helping them assess what they see and make the right personal choices that is the challenge.


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