Youth Without God at the Coronet Theatre
“The world seems to be spiralling towards disaster again..” says the well-mannered geography teacher (Alex Waldmann) to whom we are introduced at the beginning of Christopher Hampton’s Youth without God, an adaptation of the 1937 novel Jugend ohne Gott by Ödön von Horváth.
Horvath, like German playwright, poet, theorist and director Bertolt Brecht, dealt with topics which mirrored actual events, intending for his audiences (or readers) to be jolted back into some sort of reality. It’s apt, then, that Stephanie Mohr’s production could be a reflection of society today – and the need to change it. However, the reworking of the text is, at times, heavy-handed and propagandistic.
Youth without God holds promise at the beginning, when the aforementioned teacher seems set on telling his class that Africans are humans too. Then, by a sense of duty, he takes them to camp amongst the mountains, where famished locals are seen as the underdogs and a murder occurs. If only slightly, the teacher is at first implicated with the murder.
Justin Nardella’s set design comprises of a stage of blackboards, evoking the idea of a regimental army, prison-like in its look, with walls appearing to close in. The cast inscribe apocalyptic slogans and images on the blackboards; and the stage becomes littered with dolls’ heads, accordions and sticks, all of which make subtle reference to the extermination of a national, racial, political or racial group, along with populism and fascism. All the while, loud music blares out, then fades away.
Throughout the play, women are either portrayed as mothers or whores – an earnest warning from a pre-empted history. As the play goes on we witness the growth of animosity inside the eyes of each pupil, their inherent hostility appearing to have travelled down their bloodline.
The message of the play is to question how we should combat evil. The answer? Allow for the thunderstorm to die down first, then trust beyond it a clear sky will immerge. After the teacher has fled to Africa, we sense a new life has begun for him.
Hampton should receive acknowledgement for re-introducing the work of Ödön von Horváth, who, it has been said, is the first writer since Flaubert to have an authentic feel for the “ignorant clichés of the prejudiced and self-righteous.” The thirties, under Hitler, provided him with an irresistible blank canvas.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Youth Without God is at the Coronet Theatre from 19th September until 19th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.