Youth Without God – Coronet Theatre, London

Writer: Christopher Hampton

Director: Stephanie Mohr

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Formerly known as the Print Room at The Coronet, London’s most atmospheric theatre has streamlined its name, but it certainly hasn’t streamlined its ambition. For this UK premiere of Christopher Hampton’s play The Coronet has invited award-winning Austrian director Stephanie Mohr to make her UK debut, and it’s a move that brings mixed results.

Hampton’s play is based on the novel by Ödön von Horváth, a text that most Austrian teenagers read at school. Hailed as a masterpiece by Thomas Mann, Youth Without God, published in 1937, examines the rise in Fascism under Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, and how schoolchildren are indoctrinated by Nazi rhetoric.

The Teacher has instructed his students, all boys, to write an essay on why colonies are vital to the Fatherland. One pupil receives good marks by regurgitating the accepted reasons in that factories rely on the raw materials that the colonies provide. Another boy suggests that Africans are all ‘cowardly, cunning and lazy’. The Teacher is about to give the boy a bad mark until he realises that this view, too, is being espoused by politicians and the media.

The Teacher thinks the world is spiralling out of control with the move to right-wing extremism legitimising racist beliefs, with factories being closed down because the profit margins are too small, and with gangs of feral children terrorising neighbourhoods. His concerns sound terribly familiar.

Mohr’s inventive direction piles on the menace. The boys move as a single shoal of fish, intimidating The Teacher with their stares and ominous chants of what the future will bring. In Justin Nardella’s design, the wide stage of the Coronet has been turned into a huge classroom, with giant blackboards on which the actors scrawl words or draw mountains. When not on stage, the actors wait behind these boards, which only reveal the bare legs and socks of the schoolboys, a sight that is both charming and unnerving.

The first act moves quickly, and the short scenes soon lead to horror when The Teacher accompanies his charges to a mountain camp. Youth Without God is not only an interrogation of politics, but also of childhood, truth and honour and in many ways, with its second-half court case, Horváth’s novel foreshadows To Kill a Mockingbird, which, too, conceals its condemnations. However, Hampton’s adaptation struggles to give depth to Horváth’s characters.

As The Teacher, Alex Waldmann gives a sympathetic performance, and, at first, it’s easy to share in his frustrations, but it’s hard to understand the motives of his less honourable actions. As Ziegler, the schoolboy arrested for a crime he may not have committed, Raymond Anum, in his professional debut, is solid, and he brings some comedy to his performance when he kisses a girl for the first time. David Beames, Christopher Bowen and Clara Onyemere work hard in their multiple roles, but you can’t help wondering whether all these characters are necessary.

The second act seems rushed, both the direction and the script, as key scenes are described by actors rather than shown, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Without much characterisation, the boys blur into one another, and the play begins to lose focus. Moments of comedy, such as the vacuum cleaner scene, are ill placed, especially when the story rushes to it dénouement.

But, as always at The Coronet, this is a serious play, and it always looks good, even when the stage gets messy with dolls’ heads and accordions. The story is a compelling one, but unfortunately in this production it gets lost in the second half.

Runs until 19 October 2019

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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