Child soldiers have been in the news in recent times because of the atrocities committed by and to them in various parts of Africa. As in so many social innovations, however, Adolf Hitler was one step ahead. His Hitler Youth - part boy scout-part brainwashed psychopath - was an integral part of the Thousand Year Reich plan: world domination, no Jews and really sexy uniforms being vital components of the dream.
Schmitz's new one act play Capture the Flag is predicated on Hitler's edict to his youthful followers: Rule One: Your body belongs to your nation. It is the mantra desperately recited by two Deutsches Jungvolk (German Youth) Karl and Albert as they cower in a freezing, wet sewer beneath a Berlin street. Their mix of bravado and naivete gives the lie to their futile attempts at playing men. These are boys and the square-jawed resolution to be ready to fight to the last (as the fuhrer has instructed) begins to crumble as, from an unseen above, the roar of tanks and marching Russian soldiers invades their dank, dark refuge.
Adding to the unease and outright fear and confusion is their companion, Herret. He is younger and more visibly damaged than the two soldier boys and wants only to get back to his mutti. He is unnerving to Karl and Albert because his indoctrination is either incomplete or didn't "take" - the heroic ideals of dying for the Fatherland and the Fuhrer are mostly lost on him. The result, for the older boys, is that their own resolve begins to crumble as uncertainty and fear replace blind belief.
It's strangely compelling to watch three boys dissolve from one state of being into another in the course of an hour or so. It's virtually real time and, because of the close confines of the theatre, there's also a strong sense of experiencing their fear, bewilderment and horror at the circumstances to a disquieting degree. This is probably heightened because the audience knows what they do not: that Hitler was not about to pull a miracle stunt and win the war, that the invading Russians would not be merciful and their dedication and sense of honour was all for nought.
A hint of reality, which is both a relief and even more disturbing, arrives with a girl who's just escaped from above and left her mother in their kitchen - being beaten and, although she doesn't say so, raped by the invaders. She - like most girls of that age - is older and wiser than her years and the boys. Her advice and understanding of what is going on in the city above their heads is unwelcome - as the truth so often is. That there will be tears before VE Day is more than simple historical fact and the inevitability of it makes fascinating viewing.
The creatives in this production are exceptional: a seeping, brick-lined sewer set by Leland Kean is minimally lit to great effect by Luis Pampolha and enlivened by echoing sound effects - dripping water, the invading army above - by Jeremy Silver. The excellent cast of Anthony Gee (Karl), Robin Goldsworthy (exceptional as Albert), Sam North (Herret) and Ella Scott-Lynch (Mathilde) inhabit their characters and Lisa Walpole's intelligent costumes with the ease and weariness of five long years of WW2.
It's probably not for the claustrophobic, but Capture the Flag is a thought-provoking and engaging piece of work that suggests Toby Schmitz is beginning to harness his ambition, energy and ideas to something like restraint and discipline. If he carries on like this he will be in grave danger of realising his great potential.