At first glance, Camp Siegfried could be any new play about a young, stuttering romance: boy meets girl at summer camp, boy brimming over with cocksure bravura, girl anxious, gawky, and excited. Coy looks are exchanged over bottles of beer, the latent chemistry between them sparks and sputters, and then, as their conversation draws to a close, they talk about where in the camp they’re staying. “On the corner of Hitler and Goebbels,” says the girl.
Bess Wohl’s duologue revolves around the titular Camp Siegfried in 1938, a Long Island summer camp set up for young German-Americans to become indoctrinated into Nazism. It follows 17 year old Him and 16 year old Her, both at the camp for the summer, where they become friends and then more, all while quietly being taught fascist ideology, as well as being encouraged to engage in “social” activity: i.e., having risky, unprotected teenage sex in an effort to procreate a line of pure German babies.
The darkness is there from the start, but for the most part, Wohl’s play is a tenderly, carefully constructed piece of work which probes and examines the way in which two disaffected youths might become radicalised. The rush and confusion of teenage hormones provide the backdrop, and Katy Rudd directs those early scenes with a deft, musical hand: “You’re perfect,” the boy blurts out at their first meeting, then proceeds to punctuate every sentence addressed to Her with “dummy.” “It’s fine, it’s just that I hate myself,” the girl says quickly, with the kind of bold, youthful honesty that quickly splinters under the weight of embarrassment. It’s all teased out with real grace against Rosanna Vize’s wooden slats which cloister them in: both a forest and a prison.
As Her, Patsy Ferran, a reliably remarkable actress, is on fine form. A lesser performer might lean too far into trembling neuroticism, but Ferran resists the urge. There is a palpable anxiety to Her in those early scenes, but there is also an immovable sense of a young girl quietly (and rightfully) convinced of her own intelligence, who is openly demeaning of the other girls at the camp, and desperate to be seen as the smartest, the one with the greatest potential, with a glittering future ahead of her: in other words, an insecure young woman who has been exploited and undervalued, who is seeking out approval and is, inevitably, ripe for radicalisation.
Luke Thallon holds his own against quite a titanic performance, though his character’s beats are carved out by Wohl a little less overtly than Hers. As the camp’s golden boy who harbours hurt under his skin, the type which can calcify into violence if angled in a particular way, Thallon excels at the bravura, though he can struggle with that violent edge. Once again, there is a version of this performance which leans too heavily on that boyishness, but he plays it all with well-judged control. There is a lovely physicality (choreographed with real sensitivity by Rachel Leah Hosker) to the way he performs his masculinity: peacocking as he chops wood in front of Her, planting his legs akimbo and glancing over his shoulder to make sure she sees.
Wohl can play her hand too clearly when it simply isn’t needed: a reference to making America great again is entirely unnecessary for a play with such glaring contemporary parallels, and there is a narrative jerkiness the way in which Ferran’s Her develops throughout the piece. Wohl is best when exploring the camp’s insidiousness, and it is testament to her skill that the two characters aren’t simple, diametrically opposed figures hashing it out for 90 minutes. What you get, in the end, is something a little more complex and human and surprising than that.
Camp Siegfried is on at Old Vic Theatre until 30th October 2021. More info and tickets here.