The Nazis didn't reserve their highly individual and gruesomely twisted brand of nastiness simply for Jews. Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally handicapped, intellectuals, vagrants, prostitutes, Freemasons and many others were on the Nazi hit list of 'undesirables' they wanted to eradicate from the planet. Systematically rounding up these groups with meticulous precision and industrial efficiency, and incarcerating them in concentration camps, homosexuals were at the nadir of an enormous human heap - even in the rankings of fellow prisoners. To wear the pink triangle on one's jacket - the Nazis' means of publicly identifying gays - was signal to all that one was to be despised. And unlike their fellow inmates in the camps, the plight of homosexuals was not always relieved by the liberating forces at the end of the war - some were condemned to spend further years in prison because of ludicrous rulings by the allied authorities that people sentenced to prison had to complete their terms - unbelievably, concentration camps were not regarded as 'prisons'!
Martin Sherman's play, 'Bent', first performed in 1979 starring Tom Bell and Ian McKellen, is about the lives of Berlin's gay community, and their treatment at the hands of the Nazis. The focus of the play is Max, a hedonist who is estranged from his wealthy, button factory owning family because he openly pursues his desires, rather than following his Uncle Freddie's advice and confining his sexual activities to occasional, discrete sessions with 'rent boys'. Max earns his living by 'making deals' or scrounging, and frolics his way through cocaine-sniffing nights at gay clubs in the liberated Berlin of the 1930's. When we meet him, it's the 'morning after', and seems like any other, until the SS storm into his flat and butcher the man Max has just slept with. The infamous 'Night of The Long Knives' has seen a shift of power in the Nazi organisation, and Max and boyfriend Rudy have to flee Berlin. Trying to escape to Holland, they are eventually caught by the SS and taken by cattle truck to Dachau concentration camp, but only Max survives the tortuously traumatic journey to begin his incarceration, not as a gay, but as a Jew, because he believes he will receive better treatment.
Overall, this is an excellent revival, but some aspects left me with niggling reservations. First, the Nazis are not brought to book in a way which is totally satisfactory. Though director Daniel Kramer never spares us from the horror the Nazis perpetrated, the scene where Wolf is killed in Max's flat shows them whooping like kids playing 'cowboys and Indians', and one waves to the audience when exiting in a gesture that has more in keeping with farce, or a silent comedy. I'm not sure what the intention was here, unless it was to show the Nazis playing deadly and horrific 'games' - which in a sense is true. But if that was the case, for me at least, it took the edge off defining the Nazis' responsibilities for their crimes, because all those who took part in the atrocities in and outside concentration camps, knew exactly what they were doing. True, they were given orders, but they also had a duty to their fellow humans. It may be that they became immune to what they were doing if only as a means of dealing with the horrific acts they committed, and that too may have been in Kramer's mind.
The second half of the play is set wholly in Dachau concentration camp where Max and gay inmate, Horst, develop a relationship - albeit at arms length, since they are unable to touch each other, or even help each other in any way. They are made to spend their time in the pointless job of moving stones from one area of the camp to another, and then moving them back again. Max says he thinks this is designed to drive them mad. And it very nearly does. But we never feel that the stones they endlessly carry are weighing them down, sapping what little strength either of them would have had left and taking them close to the point of total exhaustion. Even though Horst gets sick, they both seemed too energetic in carrying their burdens to convey the brutally harsh reality of their confinement.
Those reservations aside, this production brought me close to tears at several junctures. In particular, Richard Bremmer's near-surreal and extraordinarily haunting singing as club-owner, Greta, was one of the most moving and poignant scenes I've witnessed in the past few years. And Alan Cumming as Max, Kevin Trainor as Rudy and Chris New as Horst all turned in remarkably fine, and heart-rending performances. I also enjoyed Hugh Ross's refined portrayal of Uncle Freddie who, though anxious not to attract attention to himself when meeting Max in the park, still couldn't resist the chance to eye-up some passing 'fluff'.
If author Martin Sherman intended to write a play highlighting the predicament of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, he ended up with rather more than he bargained for, because this play takes each and every one of us - irrespective of sexual preferences - to places we don't want to go. It has much more to do with the meaning of self, our responsibilities to others, and how we handle impossible situations which put our very existence at risk. And the ending of the play is not nearly so neat, conclusive or even clear-cut as it might seem. Though Max makes a decision to 'opt in' by finally acknowledging his gay identity, he almost immediately 'opts out' – with the possible result that his fellow prisoners will be severely punished, though justifiably terminating his own unbearable misery. It's compulsive, soul-wrenching stuff that is unnerving to watch, and leaves an indelible impression which makes the mind churn considering it afterwards.
Definitely not a play for the faint-hearted, this is not simply a gay play for gay people. And my subjective reservations in no way belittle the standard of what will undoubtedly be judged a first-rate production, as the standing ovation at the end indicated. Harrowing and difficult to watch it may be, but it is theatre at its thought-provoking best and one which everyone should be encouraged (if not actually compelled) to attend.
At the end of the performance, Martin Sherman took to the stage to break the sad news to the house that Tom Bell, who played Horst in the original version of 'Bent', had died the previous evening at the age of 73.
What the popular press had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " Daniel Kramer's revival has an aura of flamboyant excitability at odds with a movingly restrained play." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Daniel Kramer's under-powered production even misguidedly dons the velvet glove of restraint when the play turns nastiest, while Alan Cumming conspicuously fails to summon up serious emotion as the wily, anti-heroic survivor Max."
External links to full reviews from popular press
Production photos by Johan Persson