OTwo Reviews: Spring Awakening at Smock Alley Theatre

Ellie Hanan Moran takes a look at Entr'acte's debut show, Spring Awakening at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin.

Recently, several production companies comprised of UCD alumni have cropped up in the arts scene. Entr’acte, one of these new companies, is a new Irish musical theatre group consisting of members from different theatrical backgrounds, many of whom were members of UCD’s Musical Society. Their inaugural show, Spring Awakening, directed by Niamh McGowan, was staged in Smock Alley from the 25th to the 28th of January. Welcoming back many of the same cast from UCD Musical Society’s 2017 production of Spring Awakening, as well as introducing plenty of new faces, Entr’acte’s inaugural show was a wonderful success.

I started in UCD myself in 2017, and Spring Awakening was one of the first Musical Society shows I went to see. I remember being thoroughly impressed with the skill, talent and production value present in a college society’s production, and seeing the show reignited my love for Spring Awakening. For those unfamiliar, Spring Awakening is a coming-of-age rock musical that was first staged on Broadway in 2006. Based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, the musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater follows sexually repressed teenagers in a society that forbids them from knowledge or expression of their bodies and sexuality and the frustrations that come with that. 

I remember being thoroughly impressed with the skill, talent and production value present in a college society’s production

The first thing I noticed about Entr’acte’s Spring Awakening was the stage layout, complete with onstage band. Smock Alley’s relatively small stage space was utilised perfectly, with swift changes of set pieces, cleverly blocked in conjunction with choreography so there was a perfect flow onstage. Dance choreography, most notably the dance scene for “The Bitch of Living” was very impressive and effective. The visibility of the band, all dressed in the same clothing as the actors, was wonderful to see, and they were further integrated with the show when several actors participated in the band during scenes they did not have to interact with other characters. The band did an incredible job and should be extremely proud of their work.

Some actors returned to their 2017 roles, such as Ruairí Nicholl as Melchior, while others from the 2017 production remained, but in new roles, such as Cian Gallagher (once Hanschen, now Moritz), among several others. The choice to keep Nicholls and Bergin in the same roles made perfect sense, as I can’t imagine anyone better fit for their respective roles. Nicholls’ characterisation and vocals, as well as chemistry with other actors, have been wonderful in everything I have seen him, which includes Cabaret, Company and A Streetcar Named Desire. Bergin is an incredible vocalist and brings the perfect blend of comedy and parental familiarity needed for this role. Similarly, the recasting of Gallagher as Moritz was a strong choice, as he brought an impressive and believable level of anxiety, pain and frustration to his portrayal of Moritz, all of which are very necessary for his character arc. 

Bergin is an incredible vocalist and brings the perfect blend of comedy and parental familiarity needed for this role

Among the new faces were Hannah McNicholas Roche as Wendla, Damian Sweeney as all the adult male characters, Gavin Murphy as Hanschen, Brandon Wright as Ernst and Dan Whelan as Otto, among others.  I mention these few in particular as I believe they were particularly memorable. Whelan’s captivating voice, Murphy and Wright’s hilarious portrayals of the queer characters, Sweeney’s stern and commanding presence as the male adults, especially Headmaster Knochenbruch and McNicholas Roche’s sensitive and troubled Wendla all left lasting impressions that are worth drawing attention to.

regardless, more attention needs to be paid to privilege and sensitivity in this regard

By the time of the interval, I was thoroughly enjoying the show, and was pleasantly surprised to have no complaints or issues to note, but by the end, I did unfortunately find a few things I took issue with. The first was the scene in which Melchior is in a reformatory, in which the other boys are rough criminal types. Considering the play is set in Germany, and frankly even if it were set in Ireland, the choice to portray the rough criminal boys as having noticeable North Dublin / inner city accents, where the vast majority of the cast had neutral or noticeable South Dublin accents, was not only unnecessary but actively classist. Considering lack of opportunities and other often financial barriers, people with these accents are already alienated in Dublin arts circles enough as is, and often the accent is already used onstage to represent criminals or thugs. As someone from Swords, who was painfully aware of the lack of students from North Dublin and the inner city, especially from working class backgrounds, in UCD but especially in the arts societies, this choice contributes to a narrative of classism and snobbery. I am sure it was unintentional, and I don’t know whether it was a choice made by the director or actors, but regardless, more attention needs to be paid to privilege and sensitivity in this regard.

The only other element I took issue with was the portrayal of Ilse. I can’t say whether again, the choices here were made by the actor or director, but this version of Ilse confused me. I appreciate that Ilse is a very difficult character to portray with total sensitivity, considering her history of suffering sexual assault, having to leave school and falling estranged from her friends and family. Her lines are erratic and confusing, her tone unusual. In this production however, she was portrayed very differently to any version I have seen before – significantly more unravelled and distressed, reminiscent of media portrayals of severe mental asylum patients. While I see Ilse as a character with issues in her mental health, and a life in a messy place, she also seems to me, and is usually portrayed, as being more of a spontaneous, Bohemian kind of unusual. She seems a bit mentally unstable, but is more generally in compos mentis. Here, Ilse was truly unravelled, running around in only a large shirt and underwear, hair messy and laughing hysterically to herself, muttering and shouting. I don’t think this interpretation is fitting of the fact that in the end, she sits with the other girls and reads out a letter Melchior has sent her. Ilse should be a character we are concerned for, but not to the point she is jumping from giggling to screaming, running to panicking and back all within one minute. I am not sure why this choice was made or what the reason was for it but it felt unnecessarily and out of place, as well as generally not fitting with Ilse’s character.

Despite these two critiques, the overall show impressed me to no end, and proved Entr’acte to be a group of very talented individuals. It is so exciting to see UCD alumni achieving wonderful things in the Dublin arts scene, and I have faith that Entr’acte will continue to impress in their future works to come.