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Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre | Review

Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre
Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre

Youth Without God, based on a 1937 novel by Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938), has been performed quite often in the German speaking world, particularly in the recent past. A production in Berlin earlier in 2019 apparently name-dropped Instagram and YouTube, at least in part because its enduring popularity means that productions can and do attempt to bring something fresh to their revival. This one, written by Christopher Hampton, remains largely faithful to von Horváth’s work, and this production comes complete with period costumes and blackboards in a school classroom (these days classrooms are equipped with projectors and interactive whiteboards – ‘Blackboard’ now refers to ‘a simple and powerful digital learning environment that enables personalized learning anytime and anywhere’, whatever that means in practice).

The Teacher (an engaging Alex Waldmann) immediately raises titters from the audience by starting with, “Hello. So, the world seems to be spiralling towards disaster again, doesn’t it?” When he later questions a remark by Otto Neumann (Malcolm Cumming) that by contemporary standards can only be construed as racist, both the boy’s father, Herr Neumann (Christopher Bowen) and the school’s Headmaster (David Beames), side with the pupil. This is, after all, during the expansion of the Third Reich.

The term ‘Hitler Youth’ isn’t mentioned in the play, but essentially the pupils are put through a boot camp of some description, where The Sergeant (also Bowen) puts them through their paces, seemingly night and day. The play’s critical incident is not much to write home about in and of itself, but its implications are far-reaching. What starts off as a schoolboy altercation between Neumann and fellow pupil Robert Zeigler (Raymond Anum) spirals into something that justifies a trial in a juvenile court.

This does mean a rather riveting second half, even if the thought crossed my mind, more than once, as to whether an interval was strictly necessary – that said, the first half closes with a good cliff-hanger. Whilst the events being recalled and described are rather harrowing, what is more frightening in this production is the sheer indoctrination of youngsters, who develop, with only a few non-conformist exceptions, an entire mindset sympathetic with Nazi ideals.

The lighting, whilst unadventurous, is at least commensurate with the classroom and home settings of most scenes, though the staging isn’t always perfect. In one scene, a conversation between two characters takes place stage left, with pupils stood behind them directly behind, leaving the rest of the stage space looking very bare. Such minor issues aside, the play is a riveting exploration of what happens when people believe they have good reason to either tell an outright lie, or at least postpone telling the truth. The Teacher, at least at first, joins the Headmaster in keeping his mouth shut because there’s a comfortable salary and pension to be maintained – the play fundamentally argues that as the pupils are not encumbered by such concerns, they are better able to speak freely.

Women characters in this play are not given much to do, perhaps indicative of the era in which the source material was published. Eva (Anna Munden) is something of a social outcast, while Nelly (Clara Onyemere) is also exploited for the purposes of sexual pleasure. It remains, overall, a thoughtful piece of theatre, and a stark reminder of what might yet happen in the future, especially if history does indeed repeat itself.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Youth Without God charts a disillusioned teacher’s reaction to the unfolding rise of racist and militarist propaganda; a dark fable about the individual conscience in a time of social uncertainty, the indoctrination of youth, and the collective numbness to the appeals of faith or morality. In a classroom where every pupil is a spy, the mildest comment can result in accusations of ‘sabotage of the Fatherland’. Subsequently, at a Youth Camp – where events unfold leading to murder – the teacher has to choose between personal security and moral truth.

Cast: Mark Aiken, Owen Alun, Raymond Anum, Brandon Ashford, Christopher Bowen, Malcolm Cumming, Finnian Garbutt, Anna Munden, Nicholas Nunn, Clara Onyemere and Alex Waldmann.

The Coronet Theatre presents
A play by Christopher Hampton
Based on the novel by Ödön von Horváth
Directed by Stephanie Mohr
Designed by Justin Nardella
The Composer and Sound Designer is Mike Winship.
The Lighting Designer is Joshua Carr.
19 September – 19 October 2019


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