With gritty and powerful themes of sexuality, religion and gender explored by a group of young teenagers that are discovering themselves, the Hope Mill Theatre are creating an intimate production of the pop-rock musical Spring Awakening.
Opening off-Broadway in 2006, the musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater is set in late-nineteenth-century Germany but resonates so heavily with issues young people face today. It is an emotive, important and dynamic production about the journey from adolescence to adulthood, and there are moments in the show we will find ourselves relating to.
I spoke to Darragh Cowley who is making his professional debut as Melchior fresh out of drama school, and Nikita Johal who is taking on the role of Wendla. Both characters find themselves falling into a tricky situation when they fall for each other and experiment with the meaning of love.
“I relate a lot to Melchior because I went to a boy’s school for a very long time and there are a lot of similarities between me and him,” Darragh explained. Melchior is a confident young man who is fascinated by sex and relationships, which leads him to getting emotionally involved with Wendla, who is a naive teenager who has been incredibly sheltered from the outside world.
“Wendla is very complex, but she thinks quite similar to me,” Nikita said. “I am the youngest in a large family and I was often quite protected. My approach was to come at the role with as much experience as I can from my own life, but not putting too much of myself into it. We have really taken our own initiatives on how the characters act and it isn’t necessarily how it has been done before which I think is really interesting and has brought something quite fresh to the show.”
The production is set in the original time period of the late-nineteenth century, but with a twist of incorporating these wonderful moments where the audience really see what is going on inside of the characters’ head, which adds a real contemporary vibe to the show.
“The costumes are really beautiful, they have a real period feel in terms of the actual outfits but everything has a slight modern edge, such as the skirts are really hemmed up – I think they’ve hit the nail on the head,” Nikita explained.
Directed by Luke Sheppard, a young and innovative director that really displayed his talents through the recent productions of Working at the Southwark Playhouse and In The Heights at the Kings Cross Theatre.
“Luke is fantastic and the way he works is that he discusses the scene and material and then we just get up on our feet and do it,” Darragh said. “I love working with him because he just tells us to follow our instincts and see what happens. It is a great way to work as an actor as you get to find out how the text sits with you, and how you react to what is going on around you.”
Nikita added: “It has been really refreshing to work with someone who is so open to your own interpretation. Also, he really doesn’t put himself on another level, which he made clear from day one. He said that we are making this together and it really reflects in the piece, as it feels very collective.”
The strength of the themes resonates incredibly with today’s society, particularly in our younger generation. “The whole idea of consent is constantly questioned in the production,” Darragh explained. “Where is the line? What is the line? If they’re both consenting and they’re young, what issues does that pose?”
Nikita added: “One of the main reasons I wanted to take the role and do the job is that I have very strong views on the fact that young people aren’t educated enough. I’m from a culture where things like sex and relationships are very private. I want to break that barrier down and say it is okay to talk about these things because look at what can go wrong.”
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Whilst the seriousness of the issues are stressed, there are some highly expressive musical numbers as the youngsters fight against the system and portray their rebellion.
Spring Awakening is a remarkable piece of storytelling, and this production really centres itself on that. “You see so much of what is inside these characters and what they’re feeling. It is showing that growing up, everyone has their problems, everyone is different, there is no normal and this show really pushes that idea,” Nikita said.
“The end of the show is just so beautiful,” Darragh said. “Nothing really wraps up but then the community comes together and starts to rebuild and there is such a sense of hope. The show is a rollercoaster and it is written in that way, it is executed perfectly because there are such highs and lows and then you finish with a really powerful ending.”
“We have such a diverse cast, if you put us in a room you couldn’t really match us up because we are so different, from our looks, to personalities, backgrounds, accents and heritage,” Nikita explained. “We are all so different and have such different stories, which is why we are able to create something on stage that feels so real.”
Spring Awakening opens at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester on the 29th of March to the 3rd of May and tickets can be found online here.