“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.
“an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary”
Everything about The Son is arresting. It is difficult to watch and even harder not to.
This is the final play in Florian Zeller’s loosely connected familial trilogy, which began with 2012’s The Father. Here we join Anne (Amanda Abbington) and Pierre (John Light), a divorced couple who must reconnect for the sake of their only son. Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been a completely different person since the divorce, and now Anne can no longer cope with his self-isolation, anger, or (as of late) truancy. Moving in with Pierre and his new girlfriend Sofia (Amaka Okafor) seems like the solution – but what was the problem to begin with? As Nicolas’ thoughts begin to unravel, so does his family’s belief in the son they thought they knew.
The Son is an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary. This is apparent even before the play begins. The sight of Lizzie Clachan’s set – a chic suburban living room flooded with symbolic pieces of debris – is enough to indicate the carefully constructed tumult that is to follow.
It is only afterwards that these objects (children’s toys, a mounted deer head) really strike the observer as important. This is because, for all the busyness on stage, it is the actors that draw all the focus. Laurie Kynaston is utterly believable as Nicolas. He stays clear of melodramatic clichés and instead pools the depths of Zeller’s writing to draw out an emotionally authentic character. John Light is fascinating to watch as Pierre, a flawed yet deeply caring father whose frustration manifests itself in uncomfortable ways. Despite the unsavoury aspects of his character, Light humanises Pierre, making his position understandable if not agreeable. Amaka Okafor transforms Sofia into a complex character, a woman who is both loving and resentful of her volatile stepson. Okafor surprises in every scene, and is able to navigate the twists and turns of her character with flair. There is strong support from Amanda Abbington, who is sadly not present enough throughout the story. When she is present, however, she radiates love and warmth, an ideal balance to Light’s ferocity.
Whilst Zeller is evasive about the details of Nicolas’ illness, he pulls no punches with how it is presented. He wrings every last drop of emotion from the scenarios he presents, investing every one with a subtly disarming twist. Zeller’s approach – to turn his characters inside out and hold them up for all to see – makes The Son all the more difficult to watch. There is a universal sense of pain here: this family is not particularly special, not marked by excessive trauma, but in many ways just ordinary, in a way that makes its dissolution even crueller. It is clear that Nicolas is surrounded by love, just not the right kind. And we as an audience know that it will never be the right kind – but we still fall in love with those moments of laughter and lightness that suggest it might be so. The vague accumulation of dread sits uneasily within these moments of joy in what is a true emotional test for even most disconnected audience member.
Beautifully and assuredly executed, The Son may mark a completion of a trilogy, but is surely the sign of many more great works to come.