YEARNING, FUMBLING, PHILOSOPHIZING: BEING FOURTEEN
In 1891 Franz Wedekind rattled the cages of German propriety with this – subtitled “A children’s tragedy”. Its themes of 14-year-old masturbation, pornography, parental abuse, sexual fantasy, homosexuality, suicide, and the rape of one child by another make it unsurprising that it never got performed till 1906, and its 1917 appearance in New York lasted one night only. It was never seen uncut in the UK until Peter Hall’s National Theatre in 1974. Now Headlong, with the Nuffield and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, offers a modern cut-down adaptation by Anya Reiss, directed by Ben Kidd: Wedekind’s repressed, strictly controlled and sexually ignorant 1890’s teenagers become our own young, enmeshed in the opposite world of universal online porn and ‘sexting’.
The update works up to a point. The cast convince utterly as teenagers, often in school uniform, and modernizing the details is fine. The hayloft where Melchior rapes Wendla becomes a wobbly bunk-bed, the essay on sex which he sends to the ignorant Moritz becomes a series of emails sharing links to hard porn sites. Moritz’s suicide is now by hanging from a tree – horribly reminiscent of the recent outbreak of ‘copycat’ teen suicides – and he videos it on his laptop. The adolescent nihilism of Wedekind’s text is strikingly accented too by current pop lyrics which punctuate its jagged, bleak performance: and of course the teenage conversations about parents, exams, the non-existence of God, bodies, sex, and adult hypocrisy are perennial.
So is the unformed yearning, fumbling angry philosophizing and reckless need to experiment. When Aoife Duffin’s superb Wendla strays into masochistic confusion, asking Melchior (an impressive, many-layered portrayal by Oliver Johnstone) to hit her, her naive arousal and sidling body language are shudderingly real. And Bradley Hall as Moritz brilliantly evokes the doomed boy’s erotic overload and faltering, stressed-out illogic as he approaches his end.
Odd moments, though, jolt you into remembering that Wedekind lived in another age. The programme notes work hard to persuade us that the pressures (not least of exams) are harsh enough now to compare with the “Gymnasium” educational system of 19c Germany, and that the extreme sexual ignorance of Moritz and Wendla – who believes pregnancy can’t happen without “love” – resonates today when “Michael Gove’s free schools are instructed to teach their pupils that sex only happens between people who are married and in love, and heterosexual people at that’. Which simply is not true: no girl today with a pair of ears, however silent her parents on the subject, could reach 14 years old without hearing repetitive lectures on sperm and ova and knowing perfectly well that you can get pregnant without any declarations of love. And it was obviously necessary to convert the “essay” on sex which had Melchior sent to a reformatory by Wedekind into a more modern accusation: “cyber-bullying” . Which rings not quite true.
But the children’s emotions are right and recognizable, and Reiss’ adaptation rises to Wedekind’s strange ending with great power. When the dead Moritz seems to tell his guilty friend that “All the dead watch the living, and laugh”, it still brings a shiver.
box office 023 8067 1771 http://www.nuffieldtheatre.co.uk to 5 APril
Touring to 31 May see http://www.headlong.co.uk