Youth Without God ★★★

A chilling history lesson from a Nazi schoolroom

Playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth’s last novel, Youth Without God, written in 1937, is his message from the past written to the future – a shocking evocation of life under fascism before World War II. Born in what is now Croatia, von Horváth moved to Germany and then Vienna in 1933. His plays were banned by the Nazis, so in 1938, the day they entered Austria, he fled to Paris, only to die in a freak accident when a tree fell on him during a thunderstorm.

In 2009, multi-award-winning playwright Christopher Hampton was commissioned to adapt von Horváth's book into a play for performance in Vienna. Now, for its 10th anniversary, award-winning Austrian director Stephanie Mohr has taken it on for its UK premiere.

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Youth Without God follows a disenchanted teacher trying to get to grips with the hold that fascist and racist propaganda has got on his students. He challenges a pupil about the shocking racist remark he writes in an essay, only to find himself in trouble with the headmaster when the boy's father complains he is sabotaging the Fatherland. When the storyline takes a twist with a murder at a Hitler youth camp, the teacher feels he must do the right thing and tell the truth, to try to hang on to his moral principals in a mad and "godless" society.

It’s a chillingly black-and-white tale with a few moral shades of grey, played out on Justin Nardella’s set of school chairs and revolving blackboards with white chalk illustrations reflecting the theme. Joshua Carr’s lighting neatly underlines the changing tone of events.

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Alex Waldmann invests the ambivalent and conflicted Teacher with charm and appeal, dishing out top marks for the regurgitation of mindless indoctrination, aware that it’s more than his job’s worth to object. His class of six boys, foreshadowing Lord of the Flies, show how easily individuals can gang up to descend into mob behaviour, with feisty performances from Raymond Anum and Nicholas Nunn as boys suspected of murder. David Beames and Christopher Bowen do their best sharing 10 smaller male roles, reduced to sketches, even caricatures.

Nazi ideology restricted women to three spheres: kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen, church). The drama reflects this with brief appearances from just four female characters. Anna Munden makes a disturbing wild child of the woods and Clara Onyemere deftly sketches a prostitute and a pair of school mums.

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The first half delivers a theatre of ideas about moral values and dilemmas in Nazi Germany. A second-half murder trial may lead to an inconclusive end, but it is typical of Hampton’s tantalising writing, leaving audiences to decide for themselves.

Hampton has form with von Horvath. In his 1983 play Tales from Hollywood, he imagines the branch missing the writer, who survives to live among the emigrés trying to reinvent themselves in Tinsel Town. Youth Without God is necessarily a more serious affair, but Hampton/von Horváth succeed in providing a timely reminder of the corrupting influence of ideology and propaganda and just how insidiously they sneak into our moral compass.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Tristram Kenton

Youth Without God runs until Saturday 19 October. 7.30pm & 2pm (10 Oct only). £25-£30, £20-£25 concs, £15 under-30s and unwaged (Mon only). The Coronet Theatre, W11 3LB. 020 3642 6606.