It is a stroke of genius. Christopher Hampton has decided to adapt Ödön von Horváth’s novel Jugend ohne Gott into a play. Set in the late 1930s, during the height of Nazi rule in Germany, the story explores generational, educational and religious dynamics in this ever-tightening society, but at the core of its meaning is the opposition of the individual and the group. The physicality of the theatre does not just complement but even defines this confrontation in Hampton’s adaptation, Youth Without God, performed at the Coronet Theatre.
The teacher (Alex Waldmann) so often finds himself set apart from the group of schoolboys, in an automatic stance of defiance and scrutinised by their communal gaze. The actors playing the six boys are both a wrestling schoolboy crowd and an ominously slit-eyed mob; the slick coordination of their movements is terrifyingly emotionless. When they line up to spit the third whispered repetition of the patriotic song ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’ into the audience, the fixity of their stares and the snarling of their lips is more chilling than you can imagine. This is one of the moments when Stephanie Mohr’s direction comes into full flow – and shows itself to be curtly, sometimes even horribly precise, and always unsettling.
Individual performances stand out from this group, too. Finnian Garbutt as Franz Bauer acts with wonderful subtlety when he comes to visit the teacher on Hitler’s birthday, delivering his lines with a certainty that fits both the naivety of youth and the certainty of the rebel; Raymond Anum plays Robert Ziegler with an earnestness that both revels in being one-dimensional and shows the cracks of corruption-to-come underneath. Anum and Anna Munden (playing Eva) embody awkward sexuality with such nuance in their scenes together, and Munden enacts perfectly Eva’s conflict between stubborn detachment and the fears of one too young entrusted with too much responsibility. Nicholas Nunn is an eerie watcher: his inexpressive face is powerfully hardened in every scene.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Waldmann gets it quite right. As the play goes on, and afterwards, I keep thinking of explanations for the way he plays the teacher, the most likely inspired by a line that Hampton quotes in his introduction as von Horváth’s reason for staying in Germany even when the Nazis came to power: “it’s going to be a very interesting time”. Perhaps Waldmann’s teacher is governed by curiosity, and this explains his cheerful, even upbeat tone as he describes that happiness doesn’t really come his way. Perhaps he thinks that it’s all so ridiculous that he can hardly take it seriously and it’s almost funny (the audience find themselves often sharing this thought). Or perhaps he’s just naïve, as his pupils accuse him, because he always talks about the way things should be and not the way things are. But in the end, none of these quite stick: Waldmann’s tone is just a little too cheerful, a little too unlayered and uncomplicated, and the emphasis is in the wrong places. This is a difficult part to play, positioned between the audience and the action on stage, a rebel-too-shy-to-really-rebel in the middle of Nazi Germany, and I don’t think Waldmann quite pulls it off. He needs to be more subtle, more varied, and express less with his hands.
The artistic directors really deserve the biggest compliments here. The blackboards around the edge of the stage act as more than just a background for the schoolroom setting: they become a part of the action as characters draw shapes and write letters and half-words on them, most of which only realise their full meaning later in the play. The frenzied effect of writing in chalk heightens the tension of a number of the scenes, and the eeriness of the red chalk dust floating into the air as Hitler’s marching anthem echoes in the distance is incredibly powerful. This set thrives off small touches – the rain shower at the back of the stage, the rotating boards which hide, reveal or provide doorways between action – which make the production thrill with dynamism.
Hampton’s writing, Mohr’s direction, the aesthetics and the boys’ ability to chill their audience come together wonderfully in this production of Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre. Together they create a piece of art which draws attention to both the potential for horror and the complete ridiculousness of the Nazi state. This production is dark, but sometimes it makes us laugh: and I think this is exactly how von Horváth wanted to portray the difficulty of working out how to live in Nazi Germany.
Youth Without God is playing the Coronet Theatre until 19 October. For more information and tickets, see the Coronet Theatre website.