Spring Awakening, German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s first major play, written in 1891, has always been a controversial performance. His bold text examines the impact of the emerging teenage sexuality and the lack of sexual education that, consequently, wreaks havoc on the lives of its young protagonists, ultimately leading to multiple tragedies.
The play had a troubled production history. Inside and outside Germany, it was either banned or heavily censored, and eventually forgotten. The past decade witnessed a few revivals of the play culminating in a Broadway musical that merited eight Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2007. The Broadway adaptation had such high energy with its depiction of the suffering of the youth at home and school, and their discomfort with their urges and confused emotions.
Egyptian dramaturg and director Laila Soliman has attempted to capture the aches, desires and dreams of 25 million Egyptian teenagers in her new adaptation of “Spring Awankenings.
Though some of Wedekind’s words are still there, the play, currently staged at Downtown Cairo’s Rawabet Theater, has little resemblance to the source material. The Egyptian version opens in a school with a group of teenagers chanting national anthems. The scholastic effect is amplified further through a text from the biology book “Science and the Life of the Human Being. The famous Third Preparatory grade biology lesson about reproduction and human sexuality anchors the performance as many Egyptians remember this particular lesson and the stigma surrounding it.
In collaboration with German dramaturg and video artist Julia Schulz, Soliman worked for months on establishing connections between Wedekend’s ideas and pressing problems of Egyptian adolescents. They dug deep in the Egyptian psyche, interviewing a large number of teenagers from three different backgrounds, using Wedekind’s translated text to tap into the essence of teenage sexuality.
Teenagers from a village in Delta, Mokattam district in Cairo and the German School, enacted scenes from the German performance, then adapted it to suit their environment, updating the text with references to the cyber world and the flourishing pornography industry.
Soliman and Schulz shared these ideas with their team of eight performers, who created new scenes inspired by Wedekind’s text, the interviews and new material written by Soliman.
Cutting out all the adult roles was a good move in maintaining the focus on the world of youth, which often shuts the door when faced with authority figures. The performance only utilizes the voices of adults in the soundtrack: a couple of teachers discussing a sexual incident in the bathroom of an all-boys school and an adult reading legislations regarding assault, abortion and rape.
In the context of the performance, Soliman the writer/adaptor emerges to be braver than Soliman the director. She took liberties with the text, picking scenes serving the project best, discarding several characters and plot-lines. Stripping the text to its bare essentials in order to focus on Egyptian details was an ingenious approach.
As a director, the staging did not have the same focused intent. It felt as if there were multiple staged texts, comprising the physical bodies of the actors, the non-verbal communication, the dialogue, the material read from the biology text book, the projected images on the layered transparent screens, the soundtrack of the taped interviews, the music, a real life tok-tok on stage, in addition to the projected subtitles in English. All these elements did not necessarily complement each other. Rather than intensify the drama, they diluted it.
Soliman made many adept directorial choices, coming up with some truly memorable scenes. Using clever devises, she presented the extreme violence and the sexual content through stylized movements and dance, freezing images in a couple of beautifully staged scenes between the protagonists Ali Khamees and Salma Said.
But the overall effect was similar to a series of dance tableaux, with little buildup or flow of emotions.
The vivacity of Wedekend’s play did not translate well into this production. The Egyptian “Spring Awakening served more as a snapshot of the characters, not a deep portrait of their inner emotional realities.
The organic shock factor of the source text has been greatly reduced. The heartbreaking death scene lost its emotional, and dramatic, impact in translation. For example, the suicide of the young man (Ahmed El Gendy) was not well utilized dramatically.
The young female protagonist’s confusion about her body – after being raped and not realizing that she is pregnant – and her poignant question “Mama, is there something you didn’t tell me? was presented only as a passing line in her final monologue. The production did not even create space for her young lover to express his feelings about her loss, stressing the overall sense of isolated fragments.
Nevertheless, this is one of the most interesting and bold productions the Egyptian stage has witnessed in some time.
The Egyptian “Spring Awakening delves into a sensitive and potentially explosive area with tact, finesse and humor. Laila Soliman did a great tightrope balancing act, exploring teenage sexuality with commendable delicacy and deep understanding, using clever directorial solutions for the sex scenes. Soliman is strongly establishing herself as a theater-maker with a vision and a clear, distinctive mission.
“Spring Awakenings is showing tonight, 8 pm, at Rawabet Theater. Tel: 012390 3834.The play then moves to Alexandria’s Garage Jesuites Cultural for two performances on April 9 and 10.