Masturbation, homosexuality, underage sex, SM, abortion, not to mention atheism and political radicalism had arrived on the scene at the same time.
Inevitably, the musical based on the play that became a Broadway hit in 2006 cut some of that risky content, but not by much. When I saw him there, my seat neighbors, a nice middle-aged couple and their daughter, whom they were treating to a night at this season’s big winner Tony, had no more. idea of ââwhat they had come to see as Berlin spectators a century earlier. Bypassing potential spoilers, I warned them that there was X-rated content to come, while still fearing a walkout. But they stayed, intrigued and impressed, and ultimately moved.
This is the experience offered by the cover of the equally award-winning musical Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold. He has excellent material to work on: an impeccable score full of superb songs by Duncan Sheik, who has subtly rearranged it for an eight-piece group without losing dramatic impact; and gripping lyrics by Steven Sater that go from high and poetic to blunt and demotic in the blink of an eye. This is a coin of superior maturity that never loses sight of the Wedekind subtitle, A tragedy for children, but is very entertaining and sometimes even a lot of fun.
The setting is Germany in the last decade of the 19th century, where girls and boys are educated separately, and severely: girls in the primacy of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church), boys in the way of becoming pillars of the middle classes. Learning is done by heart, adults are far away. Few teens have had any proper sex education to speak of, which leaves the sensitive Moritz (an excellent Stuart Thompson) deeply flustered when his dreams turn overwhelmingly erotic. Unable to seek help from his suffocated family, he turns to his smart-clogged classmate Melchior (Laurie Kynaston, photo above), son of a more liberal mother. Melchior creates for him a sex manual of 10 pages, fully illustrated; when found by an adult, the play’s tragic plot sets in motion. Melchior, meanwhile, gains a much less theoretical experience of sex with his childhood friend Wendla (impressive Amara Okereke), whose sexual naivety is breathtaking.
Miriam Buether’s clever design puts all the action on black steps from floor to ceiling, but how versatile these steps are. Performers suddenly come out, glide seductively head first, dance with them in a contorted group (in a punchy choreography by Lynne Page). The stairs are projected onto crosses, chalked with slogans (“Gott is tot” “@Gretchen”) and symbols (the COVID virus, the inevitable penis / testicles beloved by graffiti artists around the world). At times when the plot turns to a climax, a large glass box descends for the actors to perform, like a showcase for their heightened emotions.
Catherine Cusack and Mark Lockyer embody all adults (parents, teachers), in a range of wigs and masks seemingly inspired by the portraits of Otto Dix, but the main players are the team of teenagers whose awakening – to all the growing pains of adulthood, confusions about sex and sexuality, their sense of injustice, the repression of their society et al – we follow. It’s a gifted ensemble: not just Kynaston and Okereke, with their loud, clear vocals and finely tuned acting, but each of the other 11 members of the teenage faction. Nathan Armarkwei-Laryes is particularly catchy, in the role of the gay Hanschen; and in vocal stakes, Carly-Sophia Davies impresses as an out-throated Ilse, who has dropped out of school, embraces decadence as her role model, and is certain she’s headed for the garbage heap. When the band sway like a phalanx or sing a cappella, you experience the thrill of musical theater at its best.
It’s easy to dismiss the characters’ teenage angst as from another, less enlightened era – but worrying about your exam scores or your sexuality is a lifelong one. And then you think of the young people who recently protested the failure of older generations to stop climate change, the teenagers who stood up for their rights against Islamist terrorists, the American high school kids who demonstrated for gun control, and you realize that some things rarely change. Melchior may come across as an asshole, but his position isn’t just a teenage rebellion, nor that of Greta Thunberg; and Moritz is the kind of teenager who always breaks parents’ hearts. It’s a production that is definitely worth seeing, so let’s pray that it can stay open during the latest wave of infections.