Camp Siegfried – Old Vic

Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in Camp Siegfried

‘Things fester in dark spaces’

This is how radicalisation is often imagined. With the advent of the Internet, these ‘dark spaces’ now have the dim glow of a screen but remain dark nonetheless in our imaginations. Niche conspiracy websites and private messages only facilitate old grooming techniques. Yet it is perhaps even more alarming when radicalisation occurs in the clear light of day.

In Camp Siegfried, Bess Wohl’s new play about the Nazi radicalisation of American teenagers in the 1930s, the idea that ‘things fester in dark spaces’ is not born of child-protectionist panic at all. They are the words of a fascist-sympathising aunt, worried her niece will stay at home rather than partaking in the titular Nazi-run holiday camp on Long Island. As we gut-wrenchingly realise, the camp’s barely secret purpose is for its adolescents to breed with other ‘pure’ Germans. In an inversion of the aunt’s statement, in Camp Siegfried, toxic beliefs spread amid the bright and cheery, alcohol-fuelled celebrations of the camp’s inhabitants.

Wohl’s two-hander presents characters known only as Him and Her, a seventeen- and sixteen-year-old respectively, who have come to the camp for the summer. Their identities have been reduced on the page – in line with Nazi ideology – to a staunch gender division. Otherwise, they are anonymous. (To emphasise this, the text is set out without character names; ‘His dialogue is in italics. Hers is in standard type’. Unfortunately, this does make the script somewhat difficult to read.)

Patsy Ferran’s Her is overcome with nervousness, terrified of participating in any sports or camp activities. It brings to mind the hypersensitivity of her knockout lead performance as Alma in Summer and Smoke (at the Almeida in 2018). Ferran is nearly as good here, though the role has a little less inner conflict to really get into; Her simply grows in confidence before losing it again. Luke Thallon plays well against her, finding a faltering self-esteem in the part – his amiable smiling always on the cusp of turning into the rage that seethes beneath. He completely sells the warm cruelty that pervades Him’s dialogue, repeatedly calling Her a ‘dummy’, usually to hide his own embarrassment by accusing her of stupidity.

The script plays out a typical-seeming story of first love, yet constantly unsettles us with an alarming political context of which the characters accept largely unchallenged. They bond over living on bordering streets; she is staying on ‘Hitler Way’ while he is on the ‘corner of Hitler and Goebbels’. What is so shocking is how normalised these red flags are. (Indeed, red swastikas – stipulated in the script, but avoided on stage – would inspire emotions of allegiance for Him and Her, while making an audience uncomfortable.) Yet their support for an ideology now synonymous with evil is incubated not in a dark space, but in a bright holiday camp.

The motif of light pervades Wohl’s play, from the opening scene’s bright ‘outdoor lights’ for an oompah disco to the penultimate scene’s fireworks. An effect of Rosanna Vize’s slightly too stark set, which essentially consists of a row of vertical timber planks, is that Rob Casey’s lighting becomes absolutely central to the play’s design. It plunges us from darkness (bar torchlight) to a dazzling, disorientating glow that scorches the eyes. (Though such moments were visually impressive, the production did feel a little basic, considering the Old Vic sells a large proportion of their tickets for £65.) The play builds to a final moment in which the characters stare out to sea, enchanted by the ‘bright’ future ahead. We are left to conclude for ourselves whether this is a resurgence of ideological zeal for Nazism, or a premonition of the oncoming bombing across Europe.

Camp Siegfried is largely about the way radicalisation happens in the open. Near the end of the play, Her recalls a doctor telling her that humans can ‘make ourselves believe almost anything’ and that the ‘best and worst of us is our infinite capacity for delusion’. Delusion is not darkness though; it is being shown the world in the wrong light. While extremist fringes do flourish in the shadows, Wohl is looking at the different, broader issue of the widespread normalisation of fascist politics. Evil here is not banal due to the dullness of bureaucratic or technological detachment, as often imagined, but by sprouting within a commonplace of American culture: the summer camp. It is true that toxic ideologies may fester in the dark, but fascism spreads far faster in the clear light of day.

This idea of brightly banal white supremacy is one that animated Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror drama Midsommar. The horror film genre is arguably the natural home of dark, festering things. Generally, in recent horror cinema, these films have featured dour or naturalist colour palettes – sometimes flecked with the deep red of blood. (An entirely anecdotal list of recent examples: Saint Maud, The Lighthouse, The Witch, Censor, In the Earth, Relic, and Aster’s debut picture Hereditary.) Yet in making a drama about recruitment into cults, Aster avoids this typical look in favour of bright, cheerful colours and brilliant whites. It tricks the senses; we do not expect barbarity amid the beauty of the bright summer countryside. Yet as the film goes on, the disjuncture between content and tone – a dark film bathed in light – only adds to its disconcerting effects.

Midsommar follows a group of college students, who visit fictional pagan cult the Hårga in a remote Swedish commune. Gradually, the cult works to induct the film’s protagonist, Dani, into their group, while killing off the rest of her friends for apparently disrespecting their customs – or trying to escape. The film ends with an image of pure delight, as Dani smiles, as if she has found home at last, while her ex-boyfriend Christian is burned alive before her. Though this moment has been interpreted positively by some, for me the sense of elation the audience share should be considered problematic. The film is ultimately an allegory for white supremacy and how suffering can make people vulnerable to extremist ideologies. (Dani is grieving for her entire family, who die at the very start of the film.) The Hårga cult are fascist-coded – obsessed with fertility and the propagation of an exclusively white population. They also commit (seemingly voluntary) ritual senicide, the commune’s elderly jumping from a cliff once they reach the age of seventy-two. Dani’s conversion would be horrifying to us, but we have shared her extreme experiences and view her through her own radicalised eyes.

The final shot of Midsommar, featuring Florence Pugh as Dani

Yet the radicalisation is so effective because it presents itself as a form of community. The Hårga legitimises its acts of violence as necessary rituals, a valid alternative way of life that should be respected – up until the point they crush all other alternatives. Seeing shocking deaths such as the film’s ritualised suicides unsettles the characters in a way which makes them more vulnerable. By contrast, in Camp Siegfried, the charactersinstead undergo the terrifying pressures of puberty. Characters who are, naturally, trying to figure out their own identities, are presented with the monolithic identity of Nazism to internalise. En masse, it offers them a purpose.

In the play, brightness and clarity are fundamentally political. The crimes of the Nazis were not unknown, only overlooked and appeased, throughout the 1930s – even as they built very different kinds of Nazi camp to that which Wohl depicts, which would later turn from imprisoning dissenters, to murdering Jews and those deemed lacking in social value. The young German-American characters perfectly encapsulate the scepticism towards what many viewed as Hitler’s overreaching rhetoric and general excess, but their fundamental acceptance of the overriding ideology. The information was available; people either chose to believe the Nazis didn’t really mean it, or were actually in agreement.

Camp Siegfried works better as a study of how radicalisation occurs, than how it can be averted. By the end of the play, though laced with some ambiguity, we are presented with Him as a burgeoning Nazi, and Her as largely de-radicalised. In the final scene of the play, Her delivers a potent monologue – describing a journey into New York to see a doctor about the leg injuries she has suffered undertaking the camp’s exacting programme of physical activities. She eventually ends up meeting a kind doctor who offers her dinner and a room for the night, who is implied to be perhaps Jewish. (His children are called Rachel and Sam, and the production inserted a reference to (I think) Kreplach dumplings, not present in the script.) I found this monologue amazingly powerful and moving, terrifically performed by an entirely compelling Patsy Ferran. Yet as brilliant as Wohl’s writing is here, it slots slightly awkwardly into the broader narrative of the play.

In Scene Five, Her has been chosen as the Jugendredner – the most accomplished camper, who gives a speech about their time in the camp – causing friction with the jealous Him. In Scene Eight, Her delivers the speech. At first, she is extremely nervous, her words punctuated by long, agonising silences. Yet as she finds her voice, she falls into a more natural register and addresses more overtly political matters than the speech is expected to discuss. By the end, it is full of Hitler-esque Nazi rhetoric, decrying the malign influence of ‘foreign interests’ and threatening ‘Bolsheviks Communists and a global conspiracy of Jews’, who she wants to ‘Tear […] out by the roots’. Her’s sudden veering into fully fledged fascism is horrifying and – under the pressure of the moment – rings true. Yet less convincing is the almost complete change of mind that occurs by the play’s end in Scene Ten.

Arifa Akbar, writing in the Guardian, noted how ‘suddenly’ her ‘conversion to Nazi fanaticism’ begins and is halted, yet rather than a seeing this as a dramaturgical shortcoming, I would be inclined to suggest this as a deliberate choice from Wohl. The suddenness is precisely her point.

Instead of presenting the all-consuming, heavily reinforced radicalisation of, for instance, Midsommar, Wohl explores a shallower (yet still profound) social pressure to conform. In these adrenalized and peer pressure-fuelled conditions, it seems extremely likely that many individuals would fall in with the prevailing ideology. That I agree with. Impressionable young people are, of course, the perfect targets. An instance of misdirected confidence boosting (such as allowing Her to give the speech to the camp) could be the beginning of a startling journey into extremism. My issue is with the play’s analysis of de-radicalisation. Are we really to believe that, once subjected to such conditions, the spell can be broken with only kindness and soup?

I find myself a bit torn. The moment just about works in the play due to the writing’s raw emotion, especially when sold so well by Ferran, yet it comes off as somewhat politically naïve about the complexity of de-radicalisation. It does not seem an unfair leap to suggest that we are supposed to read Camp Siegfried in some way in conversation with contemporary radicalisation – particularly the resurgence of the far-right across North America, South America and Europe. As such, we should not read the play solely as a narrative of how past atrocities could have been prevented but instead as considering how the present-day far right can be countered.

Read as a fairly literal parable, Camp Siegfried’s conclusions are a little troubling. The idea that radical kindness could be a solution to extremism appeals to an innate idealism shared by many. Yet while the world would undoubtedly be a better place with more kindness in it, to say so isn’t exactly a remarkable statement. What is more worthy of scrutiny is the implicit idea that victims (or potential victims) have a role – or even responsibility – in de-radicalising their would-be oppressors.

In some ways, the play put me in mind of the more recent trend of the incel. The term is a concatenation of ‘involuntary celibate’ and was initially used in the 1990s as a self-descriptor for people who wanted to be having sex were not having any. By the mid-2010s, instances of incel violence led to the term denoting a more specific type of misogynistic man. Notably, in 2014, Elliot Rodger became known as an ‘incel hero’ for his murder of six people, injuring fourteen others. These killings became a fulcrum of feminist debate, as many considered how we should pre-empt future similar acts of terrorism.

Amia Srinivasan examines the incident in her brilliant essay The Right to Sex, recently published in a book of the same name. She writes, ‘Soon after Rodger’s killings, incels took to the manosphere to explain that women (and feminism) were in the end responsible for what had happened’. To think that one woman sleeping with Rodger would have neutralised his misogyny and ultimate violence is of course deeply simplistic, entirely unprovable, and deeply offensive. As Srinivasan argues strongly, no-one has a ‘right to sex’. It is an insulting proposition to suggest that one woman’s willingness to have sex with him would have altered the course of events. Suggesting that Rodger would have had a better life and have been less inclined towards violence if he had received more kindness in his life is a different proposition to saying that someone should have taken pity on him sexually. Yet even so, there is a kernel of a (far more extreme and misdirected) philosophy of kindness at play in the anti-feminist arguments. It at least raises a question of broader concern: if potential extremists want and need kindness, then who is obligated to give it to them, especially when some consider the sexual submission of women to be one such act of kindness?

Perhaps Her’s treatment by the doctor was not meant by Wohl as a picture of a potential solution to processes of radicalisation, but a depiction of a lucky escape – revealing just how fertile some young, vulnerable minds are to such ideas, while offering hope. Yet the play focuses in on the effects of interactions between individuals as holding the key to de-radicalisation, rather than instead analysing what society or the state should be doing. The work of a state-affiliated fascist structure is neutralised in one person by the kindness of another. As a result, it implicitly suggests the horrifying possibility of a counterfactual in which Jews de-radicalise Nazis by serving them dinner. It is not the well-trodden path of the ‘would you kill baby Hitler’ argument, but a thornier one, which enlists future victims as de-radicalisers. Yet at its heart, there is almost a logic of appeasement in this part of Camp Siegfried – though perhaps not intended to appear this way.

It should be stressed that Wohl makes no specific claims about incel radicalisation. However, the play is alive with subtle parallels; Wohl shows that fascism has legitimised some men’s instincts to coerce and rape women. The young men, in particular, are encouraged to be ‘social’ as part of the ‘kampf’ – the struggle of the German nation. The encouragement is built into the camp’s geography. As Him tells Her to her shock, ‘Did you ever wonder [why] the Jungen tents are only less than ten feet away from the Mädchen tents’. Their ‘duty as pure Germans’ is to reproduce and consent only stands in the way of the ‘kampf’.

Nazism here shares incel ideology’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, as well as being obsessed with a similar underlying social hierarchy. Srinivasan considers incels to be surprisingly disinterested in sex itself, instead more concerned with social status. She diagnoses incels as fundamentally angry with where they rank on a social hierarchy of desirability (defined largely by the value society confers on a person for having them as a sexual partner, which Srinivasan calls ‘fuckability’). They think that they should be entitled to women – specifically the high-status, ‘fuckable’ women. At no point do they instead question or challenge the hierarchy; they simply feel entitled to being high status themselves. For ‘pure Germans’, Nazism recodifies this ranking on a grand scale – conferring far higher status on previously low-status white Germans while regarding all difference as impure.

Male sexual violence exists on the fringes of Camp Siegfried and is sketched with delicate horror. ‘You know Emily Fisher’, says Her, ‘She hasn’t eaten a bite in two weeks ever since she went into the woods with that James’. By the end of the play, Him wants to ‘join up’ to a youth movement which will inevitably become part of the German army within a year while Her imagines living among ‘all kinds of people’, struck by the diversity of New York. Their striking political divergence is more convincing when viewed as a product of their gendered treatment. Him is given a (superficial, at least) sense of purpose by the camp’s ideology. Her, on the other hand, is expected to produce babies and accept the violence against her female friends (and against herself, in the end, by Him) as mere collateral of the regime. Her Jugendredner speech would likely be the most significant contribution she would be allowed to make. The play ends with them staring into the horizon, towards Europe where Him will soon travel. They stare together and eventually she begins to see something akin to what he sees: ‘the future’. ‘It’s so bright’, Her says, in the play’s final line. Wohl leaves ambiguous – and up to us – whether this brightness is hopeful or is instead Her beginning to see again by the wrong light. The events of Camp Siegfried play out against the backdrop of our own historical awareness. We know just how far Nazi fascism will go in the 1940s, but also that it is beaten – at a heavy price. Yet we also share the characters’ state of flux; we cannot know what the future holds for us in the present day. Does a bright future glow with hope, or the carnage of resurging fascism? The play cannot tell us. It is up to us to prevent it, though Camp Siegfried’s message of kindness and compassion (which underlies its gesture in inviting sympathy for Nazis-in-waiting) is perhaps too simple to truly neutralise such a powerful threat.

Camp Siegfried

Written by Bess Wohl, Directed by Katy Rudd, Set and Costume Design by Rosanna Vize, Lighting Design by Rob Casey, Sound Design by Ian Dickinson, Video Design by Tal Rosner, Movement Direction by Rachel Leah-Hosker, Starring Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon
Reviewed 26th October 2021