Cast your mind forward a few decades and a desperate scramble for tickets to a new play with a couple of theatrical luminaries, two all-time-greats of the theatre about to give a rousing Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps a Gertrude and Claudius. You turn to your friend and say ‘I remember seeing them in 2021 in their first production together. It was Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic, and I was there.’ It happens now of course, the wistful memories of those who remember Olivier’s The Entertainer, Macbeth with Dench and McKellen or even After the Dance with Cumberbatch, shows that for long-time audience members recall the heady day of performance, the satisfaction of seeing a big star in the theatre before they were truly famous but knowing they were on their way before everyone else had discovered them.
Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon are those future luminaries, great early career actors united in the Old Vic’s hotly anticipated production of Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two-hander that must have had the casting team punching the air with joy. Bringing Ferran and Thallon together for the first time is a masterstroke and one that does not disappoint in this sharp and often beautiful new play exploring young love, the awkward transition to adulthood and how individuals are enticed by order, structure and certainty amidst the confusion and unpredictability of finding out who you really are.
These two actors have complimentary skills and it has been interesting to consider their career choices in the last three years. Ferran has specialised in playing nervous or withheld characters, people with acres of emotional capacity and depth but unable to physically express that to the people they care about. Her wonderfully contained performances – including Alma in Summer and Smoke and Olga in Three Sisters – were quiet, sensitive, overly responsible people but Ferran fills the stage with the things not said and choices not made, creating a palpable despair that is all the more emotive for its gentle expression. Her Ariadne for 15 Heroines was more ferocious, as Ferran showed her range capturing the bitterness of abandonment and a steely strength that made her monologue one of the highpoints of the anthology while multiple characters in the Bridge Theatre’s A Christmas Carol was a more light-hearted showcase for her talents.
Thallon has risen rather stratospherically, working across a broad range of projects building here to his second leading role in a matter of months. First coming to the attention of critics in The Room as part of Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season with an astonishingly moving performance, his range has been extraordinary with subsequent, perfectly pitched roles in comedy (Present Laughter also at the Old Vic) and drama (Leopoldstadt, Nine Lessons and Carols, and After Life). Thallon shares Ferran’s ability to convey a huge and very tangible emotional range that is utterly absorbing, and both actors are much in demand, making this combination of two rising talents really something to savour.
Camp Siegfried is Bess Wohl’s latest play and, as theatres finally settle into some consistency and stability, the chance to see new writing by a female playwright is hugely welcome. And Wohl has constructed a remarkable piece of drama that is bursting with interesting themes and comments while simultaneously creating two quite believable, complex and contradictory characters in an unusual but convincing period context. Set prior to the Second World War, the play uses the American Summer Camp as a platform to explore the formation of individual and collective identity, gendered expectations of behaviour and perfection placed on teenagers and the quite dangerous imposition of unchecked political ideology.
Wohl’s skill is to wrap this in a coming-of-age love story in a seemingly idyllic last summer of innocence setting that slowly unravels as the true cost and consequences of the play’s events unfolds. Playing with many of the tropes of what is usually a cinematic genre, Wohl utilises the inexperience and reticence of her characters, two opposite personality types thrown together by accident who discover common ground as their bond deepens. There are long, shy conversations, romantic moments under the stars and, inevitably, bumps in the road that challenge the lovers as the holiday draws to a close.
But through this, Wohl creates moments of discord that, like a spreading ink-blot, stain the perfect surface image that these two nameless people are projecting. First the odd view about racial purity casually emerges, later military ‘leisure’ activities like target practice act as background to their interaction before parental expectation and the very adult purpose of Camp Siegfried has infected every scene. As more uncomfortable views are espoused by these children with a surprising vehemence, Wohl has successfully undercut her sunnier context to show the disturbing underbelly of a place many of us never knew existed.
And Wohl plays her hand very carefully, introducing contextual information slowly to reorientate our perspective and knowledge of what is happening. The year is 1938 and we are in Long Island, a monied and lush part of America, but why the characters are here, their socio-economic backgrounds and even whether this is a counter-factual reality is a clarity that only comes into focus over time. This gives drive and considerable possibility to Wohl’s narrative, presenting multiple levels within the play’s construction that build to a more complete and increasingly uncomfortable position.
A central pillar of Camp Siegfried is the overt gender norms provided to the characters as models of perfection. Entirely typical of the ways in which ideals of masculinity in particular were presented after the Boer War, the association of manliness with athleticism, strength and youth were common in multi-country contexts and can be seen in Russian, German and (to a lesser but still noticeable degree) British promotional material advocating public health that ultimately fed military recruitment. Sporting prowess was celebrated and encouraged with indicators of physical perfection bestowing social status on the images of god-like young men whose bodies become synonymous with patriotism and good citizenship. And it’s notable that every scene in in Camp Siegfried takes place outside in the clean, fresh and healthy air of Long Island.
Wohl draws this framework into her play, giving the male character a template that he is trying to uphold, seen in the carrying out of physically demanding tasks like chopping wood, while the uniform of vest and shorts makes visible the visual signs of vigour and muscularity. Within female templates of behaviour fitness has some place, but for the countries with tighter government control of social functions, its ultimate purpose is to create the right conditions for motherhood, to people the mother or fatherland with future generations of robust healthy children who can in turn fulfil their biological destinies to fight, work and breed.
The relationships in Camp Siegfried, we learn early on, advocate this template, encouraging teenagers to adopt these pre-defined roles and, at just 16 or 17, determine the future course of their lives. This induction into the adult world is another key strand of Wohl’s play and her characters exist in this borderline state where they want to seem older than they are but frequently betray their inexperience with an earnest blundering and emotional vulnerability that has much to say about the pressures placed on them by parents and the American-German community, indoctrinating youngsters to do their bit to uphold purity of the bloodstream.
These young adults are given ways of being, structures to live up to and ideals to believe in long before their own personalities and temperaments are fully formed. Wohl shows the consequences of this as an initial heady rush of compliance, embedded in the unyielding principles and hard lines of youth which descends into confusion as they begin to understand themselves better. Know only as ‘Her’ and ‘Him’, this initially freeing but ultimately confining setting allows past traumas to emerge as they share themselves with one another, these characters learn what they really want and what hope they really have in the ideals and ideologies handed down to them.
Patsy Ferran’s Her is the character with true strength and an independent, intellectual reasoning that allows her to be swept up only for a short time before a kind of sense, a low-level gut instinct emerges to guide her choices. Initially, reserved and uncertain, Her is the more experienced and probably closer to adulthood with a prior sexual relationship that she discusses with a matter-of-fact casualness which, at only 16, carries with it a wound that she is entirely unaware of, and as Wohl probes the circumstances, the consequence is a growing claustrophobia and ability to detach from Him that feels brutal but comes from a place of deep vulnerability.
Wohl’s characters are largely so likeable but increasingly remind us of their abhorrent views, the hard-line certainty of which sit so uncomfortably in the mouths of teenagers. Ferran’s Her is a loner, a little pitiable at first but grows in stature as romance gives her social and academic confidence to pursue one of the camp’s top prizes. The diatribe she unleashes is uncomfortable as Ferran gives her character layers of contradiction and complexity, building towards a conclusion that completes a character arc for her and believably sets her in a new direction.
Thallon’s Him is physically strong and outwardly confident, knowing with conviction that his future is a military one. Him likes to believe he has superior knowledge of how things work and the true purpose of the camp while casually advocating views he’s inherited. Thallon never lets us know how deeply Him truly believes in the things he says or even how much he wants to fight and that deliberate ambiguity creates an innocence in the character that frequently betrays his youthful naivety, as though he’s planning a storybook life where Wohl encourages the audience to see how the cold, unpleasant reality will entirely deconstruct his sweet personality and make him a very different adult.
Partly that first brush with real life happens in Camp Siegfried through the relationship with Her that allows Thallon to explore a painful disillusion and process of self-realisation as he fears his own brutal instinct. There is deep concern in Him about the instinctual behaviour he cannot control and while he too fails to recognise the association with the hyped-up militaristic ideology he is fed, in the poignant conclusion Thallon shows Him choosing a future that will force him to succumbing to a barbarity that will harden him irreparably. For all his struggles and confusion, for Him, this moment is probably the best person he may ever be and Thallon leaves us sad and afraid for what’s to come.
That you want to know what happens to both of these people at the end of the story is testament to the world Wohl has created and the engrossing performances of Ferran and Thallon. Together there is a sharpness in their dialogue which is sometimes abrasive, two young adults trying to outsmart each other and Her appropriates Him’s tendency to refer to the other as a ‘dummy’, almost as punctuation at the end of a sentence. Not quite perfect for one another but at the same time meant to be, the chemistry between the actors creates a believably charming if doomed romance in a beautiful but ultimately terrible place.
It is those contrasts that resonant so brilliantly through Wohl’s writing, beauty and destruction, innocence and exploitation, peace and war, love and loss, all coexisting in this one place and in Him and Her who are simultaneously children and adults – old enough for sex, children and war but still spending their summers in knee-high socks at camp. Staged by director Katy Rudd on Rosanna Vize’s representational hinterland, the space keeps the focus on the characters and the acres of meaning that Wohl has packed into her play. Brought to life by two theatre actors on their way to a big career and finally united at the Old Vic, Ferran and Thallon are great now and are only going to get better – make sure you’re there to see it.