by Bess Wohl
Directed by Katy Rudd
The Old Vic – until 30 October
The human urge to create something beautiful or at least worthwhile from the ashes of cruelty and catastrophe is an extraordinary thing: witness the phenomenal global success of Come From Away, which would never have happened without 9-11 yet never feels opportunistic or inappropriate. The genocidal horror of Nazi Germany continues to provide a pivot point for art and probably always will as long as humanity tries to process how upwards of 17 million souls were lost while the rest of the world stood by. Currently on the London stage, Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt and Paula Vogel’s Indecent, masterpieces both, grapple with this unconscionable evil. They are joined now by the world premiere of Bess Wohl’s slippery, engaging two hander which appears to start off in much less doom-laden territory but ends up being arguably the most disturbing of this trio of remarkable plays.
Proving that real life is often stranger than fiction, Camp Siegfried actually existed: a sort of Butlins with swastikas, it was a family retreat on Long Island, NY, for American-Germans with Nazi sympathies to engage in outdoor activities, live music, dancing… and fascist indoctrination. Wohl’s play is set over the summer of 1938 and sees a pair of unnamed youngsters (the programme refers to them only as “Her” and “Him”, presumably to force home the point that nobody is ever insusceptible to bad influences) who meet at Camp Siegfried, and share an intense, troubling intimacy before going in very different directions.
In Katy Rudd’s spare, witty and ultimately terrifying production, punctuated by newsreel footage of the period, Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon further consolidate their claims to be among this country’s most exciting younger stage actors. Mesmerising to watch, they subtly, ingeniously uncover layer upon layer of these misguided, fitfully likeable, ultimately repellent individuals. The depth and qualify of the performances and Wohl’s writing, leavened with moments of dazzling humour, mean that while this is not an easy piece to sit through at times, it is undeniably riveting.
The idea that extreme political views appeal to the outsider, to people not fully comfortable in their own skin, may not be a revelatory one but it remains topical, and is handled here with extraordinary conviction. Watching Ferran go from a timid little mouse, comically nervous of almost everything, to a rabble rousing, exalted speech maker is as frightening as it is exhilarating. Thallon matches her with a nuanced portrait of a strapping Aryan-type youth whose enthusiasm seems constantly on the verge of tipping over into mania and violence.
There is a hint that there may be some redemption for Ferran’s character after she receives great kindness at the hands of a Jewish doctor and his family, but Thallon’s is a very different story, and watching the darkness enter him is chilling in the extreme. Rosanna Vize’s stark, expressionistic set and Rob Casey’s lighting – which starts off with a warm, wholesome glow before devolving into a hellish monochrome nightmare – provide suitable foils for this grimly impressive piece of work. Highly recommended, but I wouldn’t bank on getting a good nights sleep afterwards. Evil in plain sight is a real chiller, and that’s exactly what Wohl is serving up here. Disconcerting, essential stuff.