Last Updated on September 23, 2021
Bess Wohl’s new play is a poignant story of the seductive power of hateful ideologies.
Camp Siegfried at The Old Vic is a disturbing tale of young love in a Nazi summer camp in 1938 Long Island. Bess Wohl’s coming of age story takes place in front of the dark backdrop of Fascist ideology, made all the darker in contrast to the apparent light-heartedness of the, at times, laugh-out-loud teenage relationship.
Him (Luke Thallon) and Her (Patsy Ferran) are two teenagers who meet at Camp Siegfried, a real summer camp for German-Americans designed to spread Nazi propaganda and breed a new generation of “pure” Germans. It existed between 1936 and 1942 in Long Island and at one point attracted 40,000 people. He is a confident, overly keen toxic male and veteran of the camp, while she is an initially skeptical, meek newcomer. What starts in a hilariously awkward meet-cute sprinkled with reminders of the terrifying reality of their historical context (“I’m living on the corner of Hitler and Goebbels [streets]”) blossoms into an intense love affair. Their youthful, beer-induced passion is directed towards romance and the Fuhrer’s mission, with the difference between the two often being dangerously obscured.
Camp Siegfried is a gripping 90-minute play without an interval. Katy Rudd’s direction of a two person cast, and Rob Casey’s use of light creates moments of real terror and poignancy. Allusions are made to the rise of Trumpism, not as a direct comparison to Hitler, but as an expression of the human capacity to believe anything if it is a convenient vessel for anger and an antidote to a feeling of voicelessness.
Luke Thallon is convincing as an indoctrinated, goofy teen afraid of his own evident capacity for evil, while Patsy Ferran is spectacular as a lost youth easily swept up in the liberating, intoxicating feeling of believing a hateful ideology.
Wohl says in the programme that she is “interested in trying to understand how people become indoctrinated into hateful ideologies, and what about our human nature – our need for love, belonging, passion, fire – makes us susceptible.” While Wohl makes an interesting comparison between youthful passion for love and youthful passion for ideology (“our love is good, pure, right”), and by doing this even makes an engaging case for why people are so easily absorbed, it at times felt that the actual ‘Nazism’ part of the play got lost. The historical setting began to feel coincidental; the ideology could have been anything. Ferran’s character is moved too easily towards it and too easily away without enough investigation. Only at the very end are we shown how the ideology can affect real life outside of the camp. This story doesn’t need to be about Nazism, but it is, and at times it felt that the writing struggled to juggle the romance, its universal message about the appeal of dangerous ideologies, and its real historical context.
These are merely intellectual ruminations after the play has ended. Camp Siegfried is a duet that I could not take my eyes off for the full 90 minutes. It is a chilling expression of the beautiful and horrifying consequences of undirected passion. As Wohl writes, “the best and worst of us is our infinite capacity for delusion.”
Camp Siegfried runs until 30th October. Tickets can be purchased here.
The Old Vic