One of the best things about the Lace Market Theatre is the intimacy it provides. With just over a hundred seats, every person has a perfect view. In the case of Bent, by Martin Sherman, it also means there is nowhere to hide when the horrors of Nazi Germany perpetrated on gay men are flung into the audiences lap.
Written in 1979, the story follows Max, Rudy and Horst from 1930s Berlin to Dachau concentration camp. It begins with Max and Rudy as they discuss the previous evening’s debauchery, which includes an appearance by a (fully nude) exploit from the night before, who happens to be part of Hitler’s regime. Wolf, played by David Wills, is arrested by the SS and taken away, forcing Max and Rudy to flee. Eventually they are caught and the rest of the play takes place in Dachau.
The part of Max was originally played by Sir Ian McKellen in 1979, and is here played by the powerful Paul Johnson. Johnson makes the leap from drunken, coked-up partier to desperate, responsible fugitive utterly believable, and the audience is left crumbling by the decisions he makes right to the end. At the final curtain call, Paul clearly still had tears in his eyes. After, I asked him how he deals with the emotions brought on by such cruel subject matter. His answer was to laugh after the show and to go home and watch something silly and light (Glee!). Damian Frendo, who plays Horst, said something similar, although he said he didn’t feel it was as hard on him, since it’s Paul who carries so much of the emotional content of the play on his shoulders. The relationship they build between them using only words, as they weren’t allowed to touch one another or make eye contact, is riveting and crushing. It is the moments of levity often supplied by Horst (Frendo) that keep the play from being crushingly sad.
There’s no question the entire cast pull their weight in this intense show, even if some only appear for a moment or two. In speaking to John Anthony, who plays the Victor/Corporal, he said there was a surreal moment for him when he walked into the Green Room and saw two SS Officers standing with two Jews watching the television. John and several other cast members said it was the moment when the costumes arrived when it became more than lines delivered: the costumes made what they were saying real, and in doing so, far more emotional.
The staging is perfect for the show. Mark James, the set designer, explained that his vision was to keep things simple and uniform, right down to the cubiform blocks Max and Horst move from pile to pile in the camp. Director Roger Newman worked with this idea, and because of his self-confessed loathing of black-outs, had the actors themselves move the simple stage scenery into position for the scene they were moving into. The moment on the train, where the motion is made clear in a simple but effective way, is devastating. Young dancer Rudy, with whom Max has been fleeing for two years, takes horrific punishment. Played by Lewis Brookbanks, this sweet, naive young man has no chance in the world against the horror that is Nazi Germany, and his violently physical death mixes potently with the psychological torment inflicted on Max.
While a few opening night jitters may have rattled a few actors, this play will only get stronger. Take the time to see it. It is history, yes, but the themes of identity and what we’ll do to keep it, or negate it, to survive, are timeless. This is amateur dramatics at its finest, and although this play forces you beyond your comfort zone and is crushingly sad, it is also strangely uplifting. Not to be missed.
Bent runs at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 13 October 2012.
My thanks to John Anthony for the tour and interviews.