Lloyd Evans

Gripping slice of old-fashioned entertainment: Old Vic’s Camp Siegfried reviewed

Plus: a play at the Cockpit that every teenager and student in the country should see

Gripping slice of old-fashioned entertainment: Old Vic's Camp Siegfried reviewed
Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in Old Vic's Camp Siegfried. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Camp Siegfried

Old Vic, until 30 October

Penetration

Cockpit, until 9 October

Boy meets girl. Girl gets pregnant. Then the entire world collapses. That’s the story of Camp Siegfried, which is set in the late 1930s at a holiday park in Long Island where German-Americans come to enjoy the outdoor life and to celebrate their ancestral culture.

The boy is a strapping 17-year-old who chats up an awkward geeky girl with little sexual experience. Or so it seems. The boy is keen on Germany’s dynamic new chancellor but the girl finds Hitler too ‘excitable’. But when she’s invited to give a speech to the entire camp, she becomes an overnight convert and extolls the Nazi virtues of unity and patriotism. And she’s tempted to believe a rumour that the Führer himself travelled from Germany to hear her speak. The boy is considering a permanent move to the Fatherland but his dream is thrown into turmoil when the girl announces that she’s expecting a child. She visits New York for a proper diagnosis, and a chance meeting with a friendly Jewish family sets her on a different path altogether.

In a sense the play is a trick and it uses historical ignorance to generate tension and irony. The characters have no idea what cataclysms are about to engulf them, and the audience is able to watch in a state of god-like foreknowledge and sympathy. That aside, the storytelling is ingenious and well-paced, and the depth and subtlety of the characters provide constant surprises. Director Katy Rudd has turned the Old Vic’s sprawling stage into a versatile and intimate space that contains dozens of different locations. Now, it’s a cosy fireside bar. Now, it’s a packed arena where stirring speeches are delivered to crowds of baying fanatics. The lighting effects by Rob Casey are done with style and panache. This is just the kind of show we need — a brisk, gripping slice of old-fashioned entertainment.

Penetration is a complex new drama that examines the legal and moral consequences of date rape. It starts with a corny relationship between a smarmy older man, James, who tells his foxy young girlfriend, Anna, that he wants their relationship to include casual sex. But he lays down a proviso. No penetration. Anna agrees to this odd rule and she promptly hops into bed with a handsome medical student at a birthday party. Her plan is to ‘fool around’, as she puts it, and she states clearly that penetration is off the menu. Next morning, she wakes up to find that her playmate, Sean, is having full sex with her. She tells him to stop. He does so immediately. Over breakfast, they discuss this misunderstanding and they part as friends. Later, she accuses him of rape and calls the police. He’s arrested and charged. And he knows that even if he’s acquitted in court he’ll always be tainted with the ‘rapist’ label. He’s banned from the university and forced to take low-paid work in a burger joint. Effectively, his life is over and he sinks into a spiral of depression.

The play’s great virtue is that it refuses to preach or to take sides. The rapist, Sean, is a charming easygoing type who sincerely believes that Anna had withdrawn her objection to penetrative intercourse during their overnight romp. Sean’s mother, Felicity, disbelieves his story at first but when she interrogates him aggressively she finds his answers convincing. She confronts Anna and points out that rape varies according to the circumstances. Felicity herself was brutally molested as a young woman and she describes her recollections to Anna. ‘After the first punch, you think: “How can I get out fast and survive?”’ She argues that her experience was vastly different from Anna’s brush with a lover during a one-night stand. However, the law treats both cases identically because rape is defined as ‘the absence of consent’.

The play, by Carolyn Lloyd-Davies, takes a brave stance and suggests that new rape laws should be introduced that reflect the levels of physical coercion used. And the law might pay more attention to the motives of the perpetrator. This is a huge and dangerous issue handled with aplomb in this riveting production directed by David Trevaskis. And it looks at other related topics. Here’s an example from late in the play: James, the coercive boyfriend, barges into the police station and orders Anna to drop her case against Sean. The detectives respond by casually threatening to charge Anna with wasting police time if she withdraws from the prosecution. This is a tiny scene but it throws up vast questions about the responsibilities of witnesses and complainants in these tricky cases. Every teenager and student in the country should see this play. Conferences and public forums should be convened to discuss its ramifications. This is a script to raise whirlwinds.