7 September 2021
CAMP SIEGFRIED (The Old Vic) Review
Having just seen “Once Upon A Time…” at the Almeida, I did think that two plays about Nazis in as many weeks might be a bit much, but I needn’t have worried.
So before we get too far, a little explanation of the name for those who don’t recognise it. Camp Siegfried was a summer camp in the 1930s on Long Island in New York. It was one of the several camps that taught kids the newfangled Nazi ideology. This particular camp has a pretty grim history (including, but not limited to, getting kids to more or less build the camp to avoid hiring non-Aryans, encouraging sex and pregnancy to breed more Aryans, and that’s the mild stuff!), but you can read the gory details online, as this, after all, is the review of the play, not the camp.
I’ve never seen or read a play by Bess Wohl, but her previous plays received much acclaim. Old Vic’s summary of this play promised “two teenagers [at a summer camp who] become dangerously consumed by the camp’s […] preaching of Nazi ideology that will ultimately threaten to destroy them, and set the worldwide stage for global atrocity, devastation and genocide”. Wow, that’s powerful. Except the play was none of that… Sure, the characters talk about the importance of being a purebred German, about Hitler possibly coming to the closing festivities, about combat and weapons training for the war, but it’s all just background… It doesn’t factor into the play itself whatsoever… The two teenagers mostly go on the journey of self-discovery that could’ve happened anywhere. It’s not clear to me from the play how being at this camp vs. any regular summer camp unencumbered by ideology would’ve made any difference… On the flip side, if we did want to focus on ideology, it’s orthogonal to the characters… The two subplots simply don’t connect (apart from ever so briefly in the grand speech, but more on this later). I thought maybe the youths would fall in love but then quarrel over the politics or the war… Or perhaps it would transpire that one of them is part-Jewish… Or something. Anything. But no. Just kids at a camp who also happen to be taken German lessons and having their heads filled with nonsense.
There is text in the play that marks events that should be horrifying, but they don’t feel as such. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “holy smokes, I can totally see how this innocent boy is getting whipped into a Jew-killing frenzy”. Far from it. Now, to give credit where credit is due, the text is clever and funny and even touching in places. But this journey these two teenagers take could’ve literally been against any backdrop. In the end, I was disappointed that the horrific potential of it being this camp went unrealised (for me anyway). In fact, it made the camp almost vanilla, even if marred with streets named after prominent Nazis.
Luke Thallon plays the 17 year old who’s been to this camp a few times, knows the ins and outs, has some goals for himself, etc. I think Thallon is perfectly cast for this, both in terms of his looks and his upbeat attitude. I’d seen him in a few things over the years, most notably “Family Voices” and “The Room” of the Pinter series a few years back, and then in “Present Laughter” at the Old Vic. I like his style, and he doesn’t disappoint. He starts out quite cheery and happy-go-lucky and all that, slowly progressing to being abusive and then ready to go to war (don’t worry, this isn’t giving away the plot; we have been told that the characters are on a self-discovery journey). But, other than an occasional tiny bit of dialog, there is nothing in the play to show me that he’s really buying into the ideology… Anyway, I think Thallon does a stellar job, it’s just a shame that his progression is so muted and understated.
Patsy Ferran I saw in the “Summer and Smoke” transfer at Duke of York’s. The play got 5-star reviews, and I thought it was absolutely awful, but that was no fault of Ferran’s, so I was looking forward to seeing her again in a better play. Here she is a 16 year old from Baltimore who’s at this camp for the first time (having finally given into her aunt’s nagging about the importance of spending a summer there). She is shy and awkward and not entirely sure whether Thallon’s advances are genuine or not. I liked Ferran in this part: slightly confused, slightly unsure of herself… Quite frankly, this was almost how I wanted Alma to be in “Summer and Smoke”. Her journey is a little different from Thallon’s: she goes from fumbling to more sure of herself and what she wants (or doesn’t want as the case may be). But again, her progress seems little to do with the camp’s ideology. She is happy to learn the language and the culture, but it seems she is doing it because she’s genuinely interested in, well, language and culture… And then there’s the big speech…
Early on, the two of them build a platform from which a chosen youth will speak to the whole camp (and possibly even Hilter should he be in attendance). Ferran ends up doing the speaking. I couldn’t help but think back to watching Henry Goodman in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at Duchess Theatre (review missing from this blog) almost a decade ago. Sitting mid-stalls, it was terrifying watching Goodman “speak at a rally”. Mind you, that wasn’t Brecht’s writing, that was all Goodman and Jonathan Church, who directed. I couldn’t tell you now, so many years on, if Goodman yelled or stomped or spoke softly; what I remember is the horrible feeling that armed nutbags are going to burst into the auditorium and start dragging people out by the hair. By comparison (and even on its own merit), Ferran’s speech is… cute. Or, rather, the speech is somewhat thought-provoking, but Ferran is a cute little girl in pigtails delivering in. Yet instead of juxtaposition of the two, it just doesn’t register. Her character spouts the lines, but they are not menacing somehow. I dunno. I could’ve been an amazingly disturibing scene, but it wasn’t for me.
This brings us neatly to Katy Rudd, who directed it. She also directed “Ocean at the End of the Lane” at the National (for which the review seems to be missing; that’s not right!) and was the associate director on a whole bunch of different productions I watched and liked over the years. True to form, I enjoyed her direction here, everything but the speech, which, as I said, was a bit let-down for me.
Rosanna Vize’s set was minimalistic but functional and quite beautiful in a lot of ways, but I didn’t see the point in having actual water at the end. Maybe some finer impact of it was lost on me.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £2 only if to enjoy a bit of acting.
P.S.: I’m sure the critics will give it rave reviews, and we’ll be at odds.