Topical theatre can operate either with a scalpel or a sledgehammer. ‘Youth Without God’, adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton, has committed so heavily to the latter option, that it’s closer to a wrecking ball. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the sledgehammer approach; in the right hands it can be devastating. However there is certainly a definite tendency for those hands to lean towards the heavy side. Youth Without God began life as The Age of the Fish, a 1937 novel by the extravagantly named playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth. von Horváth’s source novel had been out of print in English for many years, which meant it was unsurprising to see Youth Without God staged at The Coronet Theatre. The Coronet has built up a justified reputation as London’s lighthouse beacon for unfairly forgotten European authors and von Horváth is an ideal Lazarus for them to work their magic on.
Originally extremely successful, the rise of the Nazi party saw von Horváth’s plays banned and he fled to Paris as a persona non-grata; only to die there after being crushed by a branch (don’t ask). Youth Without God isn’t the first play to try and find a metaphor for society in the schoolroom, though it might be the first to feature genuine Nazis, a History Boys From Brazil if you will. Our ‘hero’ is the classroom teacher of some of the most feral, dead-eyed school boys this side of Lord of The Flies. The Teacher (who apparently is not deserving of a name) is something of an acrobat when it comes to His own morality. Whilst he is possessed of liberal sympathies he is fully prepared to go along with the rising fascist wave to preserve his career; in his own words: “better fed than dead”. Awarding top marks to essays that parrot party lines isn’t enough for his grinning shark-like students however, and after he briefly reprimands one over using a racial slur, the pack scent blood. Soon events are spiralling far beyond any lesson plans and the Teacher finds his moral tightrope might tighten to a hangman’s noose.
The best aspect of this Stephanie Mohr’s production is in its stark staging, with chalkboards arrayed like barricades. As the locale changes from city to woods, simply drawing trees or mountains on the boards effects a change of scene, it’s rather elegant in its simplicity. What holds Youth Without God back from real transcendence is a slightly confused central performance from Alex Waldemann as the Teacher. Essentially either flipping between smug or wrestling with internal guilt over his status as the archetypal good man who does nothing, he offers little for the audience to particularly care about his character arc and seems so detached that his actions lack the stakes they are clearly meant to possess. Luckily, this is not a deal-breaker for Youth Without God: the SA men in waiting who populate his class all deliver excellent performances, particularly Malcolm Cumming and Nicholas Nunn which help to enervate proceedings. The lessons the play have to offer about how the craving for normalcy can lead to the most monstrous upheavals is distressingly relevant today. Whilst this is indeed a play for our time, it’s sadly not a play for all time.
Youth Without God
The Coronet Theatre
Until October 19th