Camp Siegfried is an insightful play about the frightening appeal of fascism – review

Camp Siegfried is an insightful play about the frightening appeal of fascism – review
Receiving its superb British premiere now at the Old Vic, Bess Wohl’s play is a consummately clever story about a real-life fascist summer camp on Long Island

She is a bag of nerves. He is a bag of expansionist glands. He is jolly, joshing and hearty and he shows off to her by swinging his axe and cleaving logs of wood with one fell macho blow. She waves thin sceptical arms in writhing diffidence and she worries at a splinter she has found in her hand.

It stands to reason then – doesn’t it? – that he is going to be much better suited to the Nazi summer camp that seems to have has sprouted, bizarrely, on Long Island. The year is 1938. The location is a mere 40-minute drive from New York and it is so connected to mainland America that the girl reckons it would be more accurate to call it a peninsula than an island.

Come again?

Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start – as they sing in The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is one of the works of art, set during the rise of Hitler, that are referenced in Camp Siegfried. Receiving its superb British premiere now at the Old Vic, Bess Wohl’s play is a consummately clever and insightful piece about the frightening psychological appeal of fascism.

In May 2020, Wohl rented a property on Long Island and found herself having to create an improvisatory summer camp for her three young children. A diligent Harvard graduate, she researched the phenomenon of summer camps and this threw up horrifying – and creatively valuable – material about Yaphank, a summer camp that had catered for the offspring of German-Americans. The kids were able to troop down Goebbels and Adolf Hitler streets and give each other the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler”.

It would be easy to sneer at the young couple in this two-hander – to try and tidy them away in the goose-stepping “Springtime for Hitler” baleful merriment of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

The wincing multiple puns in the word “Camp” are not lost on Wohl. Hitler did, after all, write a self-justifying tome called Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) and the idea that there is a correlation between fascism and camp has occurred to writers as diverse as Mel Brooks and Susan Sontag.

Patsy Ferran (Her) and Luke Thallon (Him) in Camp Siegfried at The Old Vic

Camp Siegfried asks to be construed alongside literary works such as Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, which give us fresh insights into fascism and the Holocaust by defamiliarising it. Amis does so by re-running the horror of it counter-clockwise.

Wohl admirably does not treat the young couple with the condescension of sarcasm but with the troubled respect of irony. This is a genuine love story. Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran – who bring the piece to stunning life – palpably ache with desire for one another. It’s the circumstances that are shocking, Under the unholy spell of Hitler worship, he eventually masturbates himself to orgasm in front of her.  Not your average romantic climax.

Katy Rudd’s production makes extraordinary, telling sense of the physical space in the Old Vic. We first see black-and-white documentary footage of the chest-beating activities of the camp.  This is viewed behind a slatted screen whose slats also suggest the forest where there are nocturnal encounters designed for propagation purposes.

As an audience, we feel shut in and threatened by the rousing band music that seems to loom at us from behind. Succumbing to the fascistic drug (despite herself), the girl delivers a Hitlerian harangue into a microphone positioned on a jutting lip of forestage.

She evidently has the ability to induce these trance-like states and to wake up from them. The couple crisscross emotionally and ideologically – and realistically. Thallon heartbreakingly shows you a young man who comes to realise that he has been turned into a murderous thug, but who is fatally unable to resist the implications.

Any comparisons with the political world-view and electoral ambitions of Donald Trump are entirely purposeful. The production is a wonderful achievement.

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