A Number – Old Vic

Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in A Number

You first realise that this staging of A Number is beginning as rich string chords fade in across the auditorium. As the light’s come down, the music becomes recognisable as the work of Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. His piece ‘Fratres’ will recur throughout the production, scoring the interstices between the five scenes, and I found it to be a hugely powerful choice which was not only thematically apt, but revelatory even in Lyndsey Turner’s heart-breaking take on Caryl Churchill’s short play.

First performed in 2002, A Number tells a deceptively simple tale of a father (Salter) and his son (Bernard), who has seen ‘a number’ of clones of himself wandering around in the world. At first, Salter denies all knowledge, but the facades he has built soon crumble away and we learn that this Bernard is also a clone – having duplicated the first Bernard after putting him into care. Instead of having another child, Salter insists though that he wanted ‘the same’; as becomes clear, he wanted to have another go at getting fatherhood right. Though debuting amid moral panics over cloning, The essential durability of Churchill’s is epitomised by A Number – whose most searching questions concern the tyrannies of parenthood, abuse, and the socialised nature of identity. Yet in the Old Vic’s new version, Arvo Pärt’s music reveals an additional layer of spirituality – which foreshadows the interests of her recent works, such as Imp and What If If Only.

Originally composed in 1977, ‘Fratres’ has become a phenomenon of 20th century classical music. It is something of a staple in film soundtracks (notably There Will Be Blood) and I believe it is commonly used as placeholder temporary music in the making of other film and television (meaning that many scores end up sounding a bit like it). Its sublime power is undiminished though, and ‘Fratres’ exudes a potent religiosity that moves even secular listeners (including this one).

In many ways, it is the perfect piece to juxtapose with A Number. It is structured in many variations, all different, yet stemming from the same underlying patterns – as the drama’s clones differ while sharing DNA. ‘Fratres’ means ‘brothers’ in Latin, the word balancing familial and holy fellowship, while seeming to comment on the brotherly relationship of each of the piece’s sections. Its energy matches Churchill’s writing too – mercurially shifting from serene stillness and bell-like chords to dazzling, choppy motion. Churchill’s dialogue is similarly coiled like a spring – taut, often quiet and calm, yet with an angular, staccato edge.

It even seems ironically apt that ‘Fratres’ exists not in a single version – but many; the original 1977 version was written ‘without fixed instrumentation’. Thus, there is no definitive or original ‘Fratres’ – fitting given Bernard 2’s questions over the contrasting order and primacy of Salter’s clone sons. Since its composition, it has been performed (perhaps most commonly) by violin and cello soloists with a piano, by orchestras, ensembles of cellists, bands of percussionists, and even a quartet of saxophones. Yet each one shares the same framework – the same musical DNA.

Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James in A Number

Yet this production’s use of Pärt is more than a canny thematic concordance, unearthing, for me, a rich spiritual yearning at the heart of A Number. Past productions, like the Polly Findlay’s terrific 2020 version (with Colin Morgan and Roger Allam at the Bridge Theatre), have left this side of the play relatively unexplored – more than justifying Turner’s decision to remount the play so soon after its last major outing.

This spirituality is found in the structure of Pärt’s composition. In the early 1970s, Pärt converted from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity, and after several years, in 1976, began composing again – adopting a new method with a decidedly religious motivation. ‘Fratres’ was an early work in Pärt’s now-defining ‘tintinnabuli’ style. From ‘tintinnabulum’ (Latin for ‘bell’), this mathematical – even algorithmic – form of composition combines two main voices: the notes of the chord of the key signature, and line generally moving in step. These form a ringing harmony, plaintively beautiful – sacred yet modern.

In 1997, Björk commented that Pärt ‘has got the whole battle of this century inside him’. He considers music to have not only spiritual significance, but purpose. Describing the combination of melody with tintinnabuli chords – as in ‘Fratres’, often played on violin or cello and piano respectively – Pärt says that ‘the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line [of tintinnabuli chords] is forgiving the sins’. The music ministers to human errors, an agent of forgiveness. Tom Service even argues that the dissonances that Pärt’s systematic approach creates generate simultaneous ‘sorrow’ and ‘consolation’. His music is a beautiful, though painful, form of purification.

Though some critics have questioned the Old Vic’s decision to stage A Number, less than two (pandemic-stricken) years since the Bridge’s major revival, this is arguably the first production to put forward, as the play’s main theme, forgiveness. Specifically, A Number depicts a failure to seek forgiveness – the play’s father-figure, Salter, clinging onto a tragic desperation to do and be right entirely through his own actions. This is encapsulated in the decision to use the mellower cello arrangement of ‘Fratres’, with its lower, paternal melody line – evoking the sins of the father.

What the presence of ‘Fratres’ seems to articulate, almost imperceptibly, is the alternative path Salter could have taken. The irony at the heart of the play is that the biggest mistake he should correct if he could was his decision to clone his son – a choice driven by an urge to fix past errors. This production seems to argue that Salter should have sought affirmation and forgiveness – perhaps even of a spiritual kind – rather than turn to science. There is no gesture towardness naturalness or criticism of man playing God though; the reason why turning to such a drastic scientific option is flawed is because it is fundamentally incapable of giving Salter the absolution he craves. A second child does not give him a blank slate, but a rickety house of cards – which his lies have sustained for years – which now comes tumbling down.

In Pärt’s music, mathematics and physics are transformative – allowing closeness to the divine. His musical system represents (and for some even does) the forgiveness of sins. For Salter though, science is a means to a very different end. Though the process successfully produces a clone for him to parent, he fails to acknowledge the insurmountable scientific fact of time having passed – and his past actions having had effects. Forgiveness cannot be a unilateral act of self-exoneration, nor can it be attained through further lies and fantasy. A Number is thus a powerfully moving portrait of a father who yearns for forgiveness he cannot bring himself to ask for.

Lennie James in A Number

What elevates this already philosophically and psychologically rich staging even more is the urgent force of its actors, who transform the cryptic turns of the plot into aching human relevations – the pain palpable. Paapa Essiedu is extraordinary, conveying three different but genetically identical characters with immaculate precision. In the opening scene, Salter’s clone son Bernard is rendered with humane perplexity – struggling to piece together the literal facts of his own life and the paternal betrayal simultaneously. Bernard 1, meanwhile, is tenser – coiled with an agitation and simmering menace that culminate in the revelation of his murder of Bernard 2, and then his suicide. In the final scene, Essiedu plays Michael Black – one of the twenty or so unauthorised clones of Bernard 1 – and finds another, strikingly different, register. Hugely (somewhat comically) unbothered by being a clone, the character’s presence almost raises questions as to why he is in the play at all – living a life of quiet, ordinary happiness, in contrast to the searching desperation of Salter, his parent only in biology. Yet this contrast epitomises the play’s dramatization of the alternative path; Michael does not feel the crushing need to be defined by his origins.

Lennie James, meanwhile, matches Essiedu – anchoring the play with an unshowy, subtle turn as Salter. His good-natured demeanour and stage action lull us into a security that is offset by the truth of his actions. Salter is often in motion – a proactive father – quietly undertaking housework tasks, and gently wringing tea towels with discomfort. When he talks about the difficulties of parenting, saying ‘I did cook meals now and then’, it seems less apologetic than self-effacing; he does seem – in some ways – an attentive, well-meaning dad, though with a secret eating him up inside. James opts to play him as a man who barely knows that he is lying, the effect brilliantly realised. Lies seem so customary to Salter that he cannot help it. ‘I’m not attempting to deny’, he says to Bernard 1, mere seconds after an attempted denial. James’ warmth makes Salter seem wretched rather than evil, not dissimilar to Allam’s take in 2020. It is probably the better choice, mining the role’s understated pathos rather than presenting him as a sinister, calculating manipulator. Salter does not consider himself a villain but becomes something like one through his efforts not to be.

When – almost on reflex – Salter suggests that Bernard could sue the cloning company, for infringement on his personhood, it sounds like the result of a learned cultural instinct, from the capitalist waters we swim in, rather than the result of a scheming personal greed. Systems of justice and restitution have been usurped by a purely financial logic. This implicit satire of compensation culture is perhaps one of the play’s more specific links to the early noughties – much more so than the moral panics over cloning and identity.

Though identity and the age-old nature versus nurture debate rumble below A Number’s surface, Turner presents the play mainly as an account of paternal failure and inherited consequences. Here, Churchill’s drama seems fairly certain that genetics are far lower down the deterministic pecking order than the effects of parenting and socialisation – which the final scene, quietly, devastatingly demonstrates. The early taut, domestic tension dissipates with a change to Es Devlin’s set, which replaces the sleek, minimalist, modular home with an art gallery – each canvas strikingly empty. A security guard wanders in the background, the play’s intense two-character dramaturgy substituted for something looser, more leisurely and laid-back.

There is none of the blame-filled struggle between father and son. The clone Michael provides a vision of an alternative path – the same DNA, raised differently. Yet the key difference was not that he was raised in a different style per se, but that he was not brought up by Salter. The purpose of the meeting seems to be for Salter to extract information – about Michael’s emotions and inner life. Michael, though, cannot provide all of the answers Salter is looking for, struggling to understand why the existence of other clones – and the fact he is one – would be a form of ‘losing [his] life’. ‘I’ve still got my life’, he calmly responds. Salter probes, hoping to find Michael’s essence – ‘tell me something about yourself that’s really specific to you, something really important’ – but Michael insists again and again on defining himself in relation to others. His wife, family and baby all constitute a large part of his identity; meanwhile, as Michael blithely notes, we have ‘thirty percent the same [DNA] as a lettuce’. Advocates for genetically determined difference not only overlook the vast similarities – evoked here as ‘the unifuckingversal [joy of] turning over in bed’ – but also that what particularises us as individuals is very often the unique combination of relationships we have formed with others. The reason Michael is so unaffected by the revelation of his birth is that he looks to meaningful relationships for his identity, rather than inside himself or towards a point of origin.

Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu in A Number

Salter’s fundamental mistake – his flaw, even – is that for him everything is coloured by deterministic logic, coloured quite literally in Es Devlin’s beautifully pristine set. The home setting for scenes one to four evokes the pungent vitality yet unreality of Salter’s world. Almost every single prop and feature on stage is painted the same shade of deep red. It has the sheen of a modern science lab and the intense lighting of a nuclear power station in meltdown. The effect is uncanny and unsettling; something in this home is not quite right. The hue unavoidably evokes blood. For Salter, that is where the bond between father and son is located – a biological fact, rather than a shared, social relationship. What makes Salter’s flaw so toxifying is his inability to reckon with his sons’ differences from him; though connected through blood, one’s children will always have their own lives distinct from yours – a painful fact every parent has to accept. Yet for Salter, divergence equates to a form of personal failure. Devlin’s masterfully heightened realism is matched in the dialogue’s delivery too. Churchill’s staccato rhythms are deliberately challenging, potentially open to an ultra-realist, digressive interpretation, though here the actors lend them a perfectly off-kilter, stylised edge.

As you watch Turner’s production, you peer closer – trying to see how things fit together, as Bernard 2 does at the baffling course of events in the first scene. At some point (perhaps early on, or only at the curtain call) you figure out that the Pärt-underscored inter-scenes feature not Essiedu but an understudy (Phillip Olagoke) to facilitate what seem like dazzlingly quick, magical costume changes. It is a neat touch to mirror the play’s themes in this stage magic – more Bernards wandering about than you expect.

While I certainly agree with Dan Rebellato’s claim that Caryl Churchill ‘never repeats herself’, A Number’s concerns seem so defining and important that it is not surprising to see them appearing again new forms. Churchill’s latest short play, the brilliant What If If Only – which James Macdonald staged at the Royal Court in late 2021 – spirals back to these themes, this time with a partner who the protagonist seems to will into manifestation. That’s what Bernard 2 is here – a ‘what if if only’ made flesh. Yet this production shows that it would not be fair to assert A Number is the harder sci-fi play compared to What If If Only’s ghostly spirituality. A searching, almost-but-not-quite religious quality flickers in A Number too, animated here in the transfixing and moving use of ‘Fratres’ – evoking Salter’s sins, and the failed attempts at forgiveness which he made without making an apology.

The play ends with Salter asking ‘[do] you like your life’, to which Michael replies ‘I do yes, sorry.’ Of course, ironically, Michael is the one with nothing to apologise for.

A Number

Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by Lyndsey Turner, Set Design by Es Devlin, Costume Design by Natalie Pryce, Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin, Sound Design by Donato Wharton, Starring Paapa Essiedu, Lennie James, David Carr, Phillip Olagoke
Reviewed 14th February 2022

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

Lungs – Old Vic: In Camera

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs

Ten thousand tonnes of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.

This comic observation is typical of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, a dazzling and affecting, if somewhat frustrating play, in which an unnamed man and woman negotiate starting a family in a changing world. The play begins with an ambush in an IKEA, when he asks her if they should consider have a baby together. This magnifies existing fractures in their relationship and they quickly turn to discussing the moral and social responsibilities of raising a child amid the climate crisis.

The play’s dialogue has a brittle quality that takes a few minutes to get used to, its rhythm that of a heightened theatrical naturalism, where sentences rarely find endings apart from in regular witty punchlines. The cast do well with material’s slight falseness. Matt Smith is particularly comic when delivering his lines rapidly, but even more intriguing as a performer when his character holds back, unsure of quite what to say. Claire Foy is excellent also, especially in the play’s most tragic moments where her character turns bitter and spiteful.

The play appears to be setting up an environmental debate as its central quandary, exemplified in the measuring of a human life against the future emissions they’ll cause. Yet Macmillan doesn’t actually seem interested in debating this subject. After all, the true environmental aim would be reducing carbon emissions per person until a human life is carbon neutral – zero Eiffel Towers. Even more importantly, any workable solution for sustaining human life inherently requires the birth of more humans. Lungs avoids working through the manifold complexities of such a debate. Instead, it implicitly asks whether it is fair to make a child live in a potentially unliveable world. Yet even this masks a deeper anxiety over their capacity to be good parents to their prospective offspring, and whether they are good enough in general.

Macmillan places environmentalism at heart of his characters’ identities – part of their liberal credentials, though in a way that is entirely passive. ‘We recycle’ becomes an empty refrain, desperately substantiating the claim that they are ‘good people’ – as does their insistence that ‘We give to charity.’ Long pause. ‘Don’t we?’ Worrying about the environment is really just cover for their anxiety over whether they are good people. That they worry itself is a sort of substitute activism; their passive care is proof of their goodness and negates the need to actually act.

For most of the play, Lungs is frustratingly uncertain in whether it wants to satirise its characters for this or make us sympathise. It succeeds to some extent in doing both, becoming genuinely affecting at times. I’ve seen this staging twice now, both times in lockdown, first livestreamed last June, and then again, in a recorded version, at the end of January. Curiously, although the Zoom stream was identical for both performances, I did feel a sense of ‘liveness’ in the play last year that was missing on a second viewing. Perhaps it was the sense of connection achieved by audience and performers convening at the same time, but the play struck me as far more emotionally charged last year.

The Zoom format suits the play surprisingly well. The text requires no props or scene markers, and under Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus’ direction the scenes flow freely into each other. The transitions are sometimes denoted by the actors changing position, others are a just a slight mid-line change of tone.

The split-screen, socially distanced format becomes devastating at times. Subtle additions to the script (‘Why are you standing so far away from me’) only add to the tender presentation of the trauma of miscarriage, and subsequent relationship breakdown. The distance only highlights the ways the couple cannot quite connect, and the performances are at their best when reflecting the difficulties caused not by climate change but the occasionally bleak turns of everyday life.

Especially moving on my first watch was the play’s ending, a dizzying acceleration in pace compressing the rest of the characters’ lives into a bravura two-minute sequence. They wave their child off at the school gates. His memory starts to go. They think about finding a home. His half of the split screen fades to black.

Yet as satisfying as Macmillan’s gently realistic happy-ever-after ending is, it confirms the tentative optimism that underscores the piece: everything will be fine if we just focus on the positives. Their child grows up and they grow old, and although climate change is understood and debated by the characters in great detail, it isn’t something they ever seem to feel acutely. In the end, the solution is just to stop watching the news. In her final monologue, Foy bleakly tells us that ‘Everything’s covered in ash’, but despite this there’s still ‘fresh air’ to be found in central London.

Lungs is one of relatively few ‘climate crisis’ plays to have met a large audience, though to categorise it as such misses its true concerns. Thinking about climate change is only one way the characters think about their own anxieties over their relative goodness as people, mortality, and fitness for parenthood. As a play about the climate crisis, it feels incomplete. Yet as an emotional character drama (especially one watched during another global crisis), Macmillan gives us a valuable sense of comfort, that it will all be all right in the end.


Written by Duncan Macmillan, Directed by Matthew Warchus, Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith
Reviewed 28th January 2021