Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre is heralded as ‘a dark fable about the individual conscience in a time of social uncertainty’ and the 1937 novel by Ödön von Horváth, from which it derives, is proclaimed as ‘a shocking evocation of life under fascism’. The high hopes raised by these sentiments, however, fail to materialise as Christopher Hampton’s work unfolds.
A disappointing disconnect between what is promised and what is delivered.
The central character is known only as The Teacher (Alex Waldmann), and as such becomes the generic embodiment of those coming to terms with life in an increasingly totalitarian regime in which indoctrination takes precedence over education. Waldmann portrays a committed teacher of history and geography, the former of which he will soon become a part of and the latter making him suited to accompanying his students on their youth camp in the mountains. That event turns into a disaster as bullying and conflicts in the camp along with adolescent sexual foraging leads to a murder. Teacher experiences considerable discomfort with governmental interference along with the specific intervention of a parent critical of his liberalism and ideology that is at odds with official teaching, Waldmann, however seems far too relaxed, comfortable and laid back about the whole situation. He wrestles rather calmly and logically with moral dilemmas and matters of truth and honesty, but has a detachment that makes him seem aloof from the deep personal strife and conflict they might normally engender.
A hotchpotch of other characters is involved in a variety of situations that only tangentially affect the main thrust of the play, and certainly don’t rise to the level of subplots. The compromised behaviour of priests and the complicity of the Church in the rise of fascism, prostitution, drunken eccentricity and the role and responsibilities of parents are all thrown into the melting pot without any profound revelations emerging. To this is added the use of largely recent graduates as the school students. Even dressed in shorts, this doesn’t help to convey the idea that it was young teenagers whose minds the regime was trying to control.
Justin Nardellaten’s austerely spartan set of black period chalk boards around the perimeter of the stage, with basic classroom chairs denotes the school setting, which dominates throughout. It provides little opportunity for creating other sets that aren’t embedded in this structure. The wintery grey and white woodland images which appear on the reverse of the boards when revolved, provide little relief and certainly don’t evoke the sense of summer. The second act courtroom scene looks like classroom furniture, which is what it is, simply rearranged as it might be for a drama lesson. The script at this point also creates only the semblance of what a serious trial scene might be. Piercing compositions and sound by Mike Winship which divide the scenes suggest more cutting-edge, penetrating and tense moments than ever emerge.
Stephanie Mohr’s direction, in what sounds like a potentially gripping production, makes the control exercised by the authorities feel like an inconvenience that can be worked around rather than a serious threat to anyone’s life, though at the time it certainly was. Throughout there is a disappointing disconnect between what is promised and what is delivered.