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Youth Without God, Coronet Theatre review - the chill control of nascent Nazism | reviews, news & interviews

Youth Without God, Coronet Theatre review - the chill control of nascent Nazism

Youth Without God, Coronet Theatre review - the chill control of nascent Nazism

Christopher Hampton adapts von Horváth's novel about the mindset of totalitarianism

A world of truth and lies: Alex Waldmann as the teacher

The only novel by the Hungarian dramatist Ödön von Horváth, Youth Without God was written in exile after he fled Anschluss Vienna and published in 1938, shortly before his death. In the English-speaking world, we know von Horváth for his plays, largely through the translations of Christopher Hampton, and it’s Hampton who has adapted the novel for its UK premiere at the Coronet (now minus its Print Room moniker), where Stephanie Mohr’s production plays very satisfyingly, making the most of the venue’s spacious, uncrowded stage as well as its striking sense of period dereliction.  

When it was first published, Youth Without God must have brought a degree of real insight to those who had not witnessed the Nazi regime at first hand. Von Horvath was unusual among writers of his generation for not having escaped the Nazi regime early on, given that he was certainly an opponent of it, having had (literal) skirmishes with the right-wingers before they came to power in 1933; with his plays banned, he made a living in Vienna by writing scripts for the American studios. “It’s going to be a very interesting time,” he wrote to a friend as the new regime tightened its grip, with a degree of bravado that might seem today to verge on the careless. Thomas Mann praised the novel highly, writing to its author to ask how he had come about such a wealth of inside knowledge, presumably unaware that von Horváth had chosen to remain close to the fascist flame for so long.Youth Without GodFrom the outset Hampton certainly foregrounds the piece’s contemporary relevance to our own troubled times: his teacher protagonist kicks off with an opening monologue, “Hello. So the world seems to be spiralling towards disaster again, doesn’t it?” No room for ambiguity there, the analysis of the mindset of totalitarianism almost put into second place. Playing this (unnamed) central character as a mild-mannered pragmatist, Alex Waldmann makes it clear that this is a story not only about those already indoctrinated – the “youth” of the title – but about the bystanders, in all probability the majority, who was well aware of the lies but preferred to keep quiet to ensure their own stability.

Youth Without God thus becomes a study in the state of complicity – when any “reflective” or “private” thoughts have to be kept hidden from a general space whose rules are dictated by the masses – until a moment comes that forces the individual to define him- or herself through decision. The teacher’s initial attempts to counter prevailing ideology certainly seem mild: he responds to a student’s outright racist remark (the n-word of the German original is kept) by countering that “Africans are human beings, as well”. But that sets a storm blowing that has him denounced by a Party-member parent, a sure sign of the prevailing atmosphere.

It’s a standout moment, dramatically as well as thematically, the intensity of which becomes somewhat diluted as the action proceeds. When the teacher accompanies his pupils to a summer camp in the mountains, he gains a clearer impression of the general situation, at the same time becoming further embroiled in the inner dynamics of his charges. It culminates with the discovery of a dead body, which propels von Horváth’s narrative, a tad formulaically though never without some element of dramatic surprise, towards its second-half showdowns.

That interaction between thematic interest – what the teacher discovers about his world and in turn conveys to us, the audience – and dramatic drive doesn’t always cohere. The second-half scenes of court interrogation are gripping in themselves – confrontation being a staple of drama – and alongside them looser elements appear a little out of place. There’s a strand about the teacher’s private life that seems initially rather superfluous – his lowlife encounters with a character known as “Julius Caesar”, later revealed for more than he seems, as well as a hang-on prostitute – before it is subsequently linked to associated plot elements.Youth Without GodIt leaves the impression rather that, alongside the play’s key premise and its direct action, there’s a degree of padding, a slightness in development if not of the story as such. Stephanie Mohr’s excellent production makes up for that with a stylistic determination that is both gripping in itself, as well as playing with considerable effect on the associations of totalitarianism. The setpiece scenes stand out, and she has drawn some commendable ensemble playing from her cast, the six young men who function, for all their internal disagreements, as an effective unit, as well as two multi-doubling roles played by David Beames and Christopher Bowen.

Effects such as stamping boots recur, and Justin Nardella’s set is dominated by a back wall of chalk blackboards used both in the school context and, as they rotate, to hint at surveillance and to change setting, with Joshua Carr’s lighting also emphasising key dramatic moments. Mike Winship’s sound design is even more inventive, setting a general mood of anxiety through its frequent atonality. It's a stylistic concoction that seems very welcome: without such support, Youth Without God would feel a curiously inert text.  

From the outset Hampton certainly foregrounds the piece’s relevance to our own troubled times

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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