One could do worse than turn to a classroom to find the microcosm of a society.
Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 novel Youth Without God presumes as much: its story of a group of raucous 15-year-old boys and their idealistic teacher, who become embroiled in subversion, sabotage and murder, attempts to compass the moral landscape of Nazi Germany in 1935.
In his central performance as the unnamed teacher, Alex Waldmann portrays a man increasingly torn between integrity and expediency, though his amiable gentleness is perhaps overdone – he could have shown deeper signs of the surrounding chaos.
His embittered pupils, whose internal tensions quickly erupt into violence, are brought to life by a harmonious ensemble, with particularly impressive renderings by Malcolm Cumming and Nicholas Nunn.
Justin Nardella’s spare set, lined with revolving chalkboards and scattered with chairs, provides an apt match for Stephanie Mohr’s intermittently abstract staging. Strengthened by shadowy lighting, this sombre world is at its most affecting when it foregrounds a fluid, disquieting choreography.
While the play’s first half offers a relatively layered snapshot of life in the pre-war Nazi era, its remainder makes much of a prolonged murder trial that rarely picks up steam.
The aphoristic bent of Hampton’s writing has the power to incite resonant questions about faith, responsibility and truth, but its contributions to a convoluted plot prove to be slim.
Now is a good time, however, to take heed of what Youth Without God has to remind us about a sick society and those complicit in it.