Youth Without God
The Coronet Theatre
Reviewed – 24th October 2019
“Horváth’s story oozes dread and suspense, both of which were lacking this evening”
Christopher Hampton, the West-End’s go-to translator whose adaptation of Florian Zeller’s “The Son” is currently playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, has turned his hand to Ödön von Horváth’s 1938 novella “Youth Without God” (‘Jugend ohne Gott’). First published the year of his untimely death, Horváth’s novella is a stunning meditation on complicity and justice under the early years of Nazi rule in Germany. Hampton has been faithful to a fault, in a way that leaves this production feeling a little lacking.
Originally a first-person narrative, we follow the nameless Teacher (Alex Waldmann) whose class of teenage schoolboys are introduced as hot-headed, propaganda-spurting youths. After trying to oust their teacher for his insistence that “Africans are humans too”, the boys are sent off with him for military training in the mountains. Free to roam the woods, one boy (Raymond Anum) begins a clandestine affair with a young orphaned girl (Anna Munden), and events quickly spiral out of control with one classmate ending up with a stone to the temple (Malcolm Cumming) and the other on trail for his life.
All this is told ostensibly from the teacher’s perspective, using narration and reported speech to detail the events. This would not be a problem, but Waldmann’s fairly under-energised performance means he doesn’t quite bring us on side, and he remains an impassive and emotionally stunted character throughout. Hampton has translated great swathes of text for the Teacher, but more needs to be worked out between writer, director and actor to differentiate between narrated and lived-in moments. Why is the Teacher speaking to us at all? Knowing the book, the translation feels a little unimaginative at times. As a published text, fine. On stage? It gets quite dry.
Director Stephanie Mohr has some intriguing ideas that feel blocked by a heavy and dominant text. Chalkboards frame the stage and become trees, doors and a canvas for the boys and their teacher to write on. Dolls’ heads and school chairs end up littering the stage, but much of the business comes across as style over substance. The eleven-strong cast seems a bit over the top, given that three actors play multiple roles while the others get away with one. David Beames stands out for offering a dose of energetic oddness amongst the doom and gloom.
Taken altogether, the potential of the text is sadly left drifting in this production. Horváth’s story oozes dread and suspense, both of which were lacking this evening. Some moments had potential to shock and disturb, but the overwhelming emotion at the end of the night is a shrug rather than a shudder.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Tristram Kenton
Youth Without God
The Coronet Theatre until 19th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: