Martin Sherman’s Bent has had many reincarnations since its premier in 1979; its revival at the Royal National Theatre, London, in 1990 is deemed to be one of its most notable where Sir Ian McKellen played Max, the complex and troubled protagonist. Cut Lunch Productions brings this gay classic to the Melbourne stage this month and it is a play that still has the ability to move, anger and motivate audience members.
It is a great decision of Theatre Works to green light this important play, and it’s not even Midsumma! The play’s central theme is homosexual history of the holocaust where thousands of homosexual men were rounded up, branded with a pink triangle and sent to the death camps. It’s a story about love coming out of the most desperate of circumstances.
Director Eddy Segal relies on good lighting, skilled acting and minimal set to tell the story of Bent. He and the cast do this successfully for the most part. With its simple set and carefully crafted lighting design, this production does a good job in conveying all the terror of the concentration camps during the Nazi regime and the poignancy of the play’s love story.
The story tells of two male lovers, Rudy (Zak Zavod) and Max (Christopher Brown), who flee Berlin after they get entangled with a one night stand called Wolf (Benjamin Clegg) who happens to be too close to Hitler’s inner circle. They hide in a forest outside the city but are then caught by the Gestapo and arrested for being homosexual. Both men find themselves on a train bound for Dachau. Rudy loses his life in a horrific scene of torture on this train journey and at the same time Max encounters Horst (Paul Blenheim) and their friendship grows into a love affair. Max is able to persuade the authorities at the camp not to brand him with a pink triangle but with a yellow star – to denote a Jewish inmate – as this is a more acceptable branding for the death camp as the homosexuals with the pink triangles sat on the bottom rung.
So themes of identity and honesty to oneself and others are another feature of this well-crafted play as well. Act Two really took off with the two actors, Blenheim and Brown, portraying the vulnerability and the strength of companionship with subtlety and the right kind of intimacy was evoked. The ‘virtual orgasm’ scene was beautifully executed with the whole audience being taken in with its eroticism and its tenderness. Both actors did exceptionally well to bring this to life as they stood gazing into the audience, showing their characters falling into the depths of longing for the unattainable but them doing their level best to make it all happen with their imaginative powers.
Both actors really captured their first stirrings of love and the progress to Horst declaration of love as both men passed back and forward moving the rocks, their daily, menial task at the camp.
Another scene worth noting was the torture and death of Rudy. This scene showed the necessary violence to establish the horror that befell the characters so quickly after being arrested. Brown’s focus and control of his facial expression contributed greatly to this harrowing scene.
Max visits Uncle Freddie (Robert van Mackelenberg) within the confines of a public park. This scene brought much humour yet emphasized the foreboding that surrounded them. Van Mackelenberg’s Freddie is a relaxed, older and wiser homosexual trying to help his nephew escape using family money and fresh identity papers. This scene was different to the shaky start of the play where I didn’t think the relationship between Max and Rudy was established strongly enough.
The very moving ending saw many audience members unable to hold back their tears. Bent is a timeless play as it explores our ability to love others and ourselves. It’s so unsettling to watch the prejudice and intolerance against the homosexual man in the darkest time of the 20th century, the desperate episode of WWII and man’s inhumanity to man. How strong is gay identity now in the 21st century; could it survive even a sliver of the intolerance that permeated as a result of Hilter’s Nazi Germany?