Spring Awakening

Have we awakened? Or are we still totally fucked?
My thoughts on Pangdemonium’s staging of Spring Awakening

To think that Frank Wedekind wrote Spring Awakening in 1892 is quite something.

For at a time when the world was fed and run on conservative values and traditions, a play written on subjects relating to teenage sexuality and pregnancy, child abuse, homosexuality, failure and suicide, would have been regarded as taboo, almost deviant. In fact, it comes as no surprise to learn that the play was often banned because of its sexual content and for being regarded as “pornographic”, before it finally made its way onto a Berlin stage 20 years later.

In 2006, Glee stars Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff gave it new life on Broadway, winning audiences and numerous awards in what seems now to be a timeless reminder to “talk to your children and listen to them”, as Adrian Pang (who plays all the adult male roles in the play, confusing me initially) so convincingly implores in an epilogue at the Drama Centre after his version of the play.

“If not, we’re totally fucked!” Mr Pang adds emphatically, amidst the nervous snigger in the audience (I swear I had a strong feeling that some in the audience were still not too convinced that being liberal and open minded to our children in our society, even today, is the way to go).

We’ve just seen what being a bunch of conservative Nazi-ish parents or authoritarian figures may cause our kids to possibly end up doing – Moritz Stiefel (pint-sized dynamo and B-boy Eden Ang, with a little too much energy manifesting itself in too many facial contorts, but nonetheless delivers a full-hearted performance filled with misplaced nerves and anxiety) shoots himself in the mouth not just because he has failed in school, but more so because he cannot live to face the shame he has brought his father; Wendla Bergmann (16-year-old Filipino vocal wonder Julia Abueva , who made it to Oprah’s list of world’s most talented kids – her singing, almost comparable to Michele’s with crisp, clear tones and perfect enunciation, but not half as annoyingly saccharine-sweet) is impregnated with lover Melchior Gabor’s seed (Melchior, played by Indonesian-Chinese jazz prodigy Nathan Hartono, whose statuesque physique gives him the stage and leading man-boy presence, and whose voice manages to eclipse all the other male casts’, in a very credible virgin stage attempt) after a passionate tryst in the forest and is sent for a forced abortion by her mother where she dies; And Melchior, from top student, becomes an angsty, shattered and emotional  wreck eventually sent to reform school. The three are supported by a capable ensemble – including three child actors (two of whom are Mr Pang’s sons), whose presence in the scenes adds much colour to this lively rock musical.

Yes, we all know that the far-fetched consequences of being too close-minded, of judging others and for holding on to values too tightly as if we ourselves were saints. But is this relevant in our liberal world now, where everyone seems to be compromising on any set of values – just like how it’s happening in the West, we say? Or are we being hypocrites?

On the one-hand, we find ourselves tantalised by porn, captivated by lucid details of extra marital affairs sensationalising the civil service, indulging in insinuatingly Mills-and-Boons torrid love stories on TV and at the movies, reading with wide-eyed lust at graphic reports in The Newpaper or Wanbao, but all at the same time, we crucify the perpetrators of that 3-storey A&F torso poster, apathetically scoff at activist events like Slut-Walk and Pink Dot as if they were freak shows, and consciously or unconsciously condemn alternative lifestyles because we are after all “Asian” and “conservative”. I am listing these not because these are scenarios of yesterday but because they are reality, more than ever, now:  I myself, have just found out to my surprise that I have Facebook “friends” who blatantly condemn homosexuals based on the premise of religion. Is this old school or am I a victim of compromise too? But I guess as the once-marginalised now have more freedom to speak up, the once-quiet bigots now find no reason to be silent too. So I ask: do we thus hold these beliefs of “moral values” arbitrarily depending on what suits our comfort levels? Or are we liberal only to accepted norms – as dictated by what our society defines as “normal” today?

Midway through the play, I was a little surprised to hear a collective gasp from the audience each time the two homosexual characters locked lips, compared to when Melchior simulated his rabid lovemaking with Wendla on an SM-inspired swing – bare butt and all – and to which there wasn’t a flinch. Could it be that the audience was too uncomfortable at the latter thus rendering them squeakless, or that the sight of two men kissing on stage was just way too alternative, despite the fact that there is an increased awareness of homosexuality in society (just look in the news for gay-related topics – plays, crimes, even lifestyle; and even on the street – gay boys in signature uniforms – tight tees, berms, Havaianas; and the subtly blatant homoerotic A&F store, to say the least) – like it is a joke – and so making a sound implying shock or disapproval was justified?

Then we ourselves are also guilty of dispensing cheap advice like “it’s okay to fail, you can always try again, or in other ways”, just as long as it doesn’t happen to anyone close or to ourselves. The threat that if we fail, we’ll end up as toilet cleaners is still as prevalent today as it was two-odd decades ago when I was a child.

120 years have passed since Spring Awakening was written and the issues then are now still weirdly apparent. Despite more education, people with extreme conservative views incapable of accepting differences within the human race still remain in segments of our society. We still read in news around the world about bullying, gay-bashing or children committing suicide because they feel they have failed themselves and embarrassed their parents. Lady Gaga, together with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra, have just launched a campaign to promote tolerance and acceptance and to “challenge meanness and cruelty” in the world. There wouldn’t have been a need for such a publicity stunt if the world is really in good shape.

Pangdemonium’s Spring Awakening made me sit up and realise what it means to have certain prefixed ideas of what is constructed as “normal” in our society, and I must admit that I am guilty of subscribing to some of that. Through the energy and passion displayed on stage, and the simple but moving storyline, I’ve realised how difficult it is for one to really keep an open mind and to accept differences among us. It is difficult simply because we grow up in a society with expectations – to conform, to progress and to succeed, where we ourselves are inevitably imbibed with these, leading us to burden others with these ideas of acceptance. But despite the misery in the play, there is a silver lining in Spring Awakening: the cast ends off with a song about life and hope, as if there will be a better tomorrow for those struggling to be understood. Maybe we’ll all need reminders once in awhile to look the other way and to question what we really are expecting of others, and ourselves.

So rather than being forced or forcing others to feel the shame of uncontrollable lust, the sin of deviance or the failure to live up to expected norms, maybe we should see what happens when we allow each other to celebrate the joy of first love, the beauty of self-discovery and the opportunity to try again – issues that the play questioned.

And for that, I’m grateful that Spring Awakening provoked those questions in me, or I’ll probably be no less fucked up.

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Another review by Ryandall Lim.

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