Savage, review of Claudio Macor's play at the Above the Arts Theatre
Inspired by an article in The Guardian by Peter Tatchell, Savage explores the atrocities committed by Nazi sympathiser Dr Carl Peter Vaernet who believed he had found a 'cure' for homosexuality that included injecting monkey testosterone into the testicles of gay men. Unchallenged in Denmark during the 1930s, the practice was encouraged by the Nazi regime and following the liberation by Allied forces, ignored by both the Danish and British governments.
The play is a noble attempt to tell this fascinating yet ultimately difficult historical footnote through the lens of a love story between a Danish and American man who find themselves separated by the rise of the Nazi regime.
It's clear that the research and writing of this play has been a labour of love but the need and want to tell the story often obstructs the actual telling of it. At times it feels overly long, with individual scenes crying out for a ruthless trim to help the pacing of the play as a whole. Scenes between Bergsen and Travis in particular are overly didactic and aren't always driving forward which gives them the tendency to sag.
The play attempts to balance three narrative strands that contribute to the same story, and whilst it effectively sets each one of these up with sufficient exposition, the exploration in a number of key characters could be pushed further. Some characters simply fade out without question, and Dr Vaernet isn't sufficiently explored to even offer a vague understanding of his intentions or lack of moral compass.
As a venue, Above the Arts is perhaps better suited to cabaret productions, with the un-raked seating and difficult sight lines working against the audience's need to be completely absorbed in the world. It's an overly modest production with a clumsy set that on the whole lets down the play and doesn't provide the best platform for it to fully succeed. Overall it lacks atmosphere, and in a play that swiftly takes in multiple locations including a sexy cabaret, the shift in tone is never felt, resulting in that particular scene feeling extremely self conscious and devoid of energy.
With direction by writer Claudio Macor the play suffers by not having an external creative eye to fully deliver the potential within the text itself. Some fundamental staging and blocking issues work against the actors – a split scene performed simultaneously for example results in frequent upstaging, and the busier scenes in the Doctor's office never quite balance the space – at times they're left to tread water.
Despite that there are some solid performances on display from the committed cast who bring the varied shades of characters to life effectively and clearly have a handle on the emotional weight behind the history. Macor's greatest skill is bringing together a wide collection of characters that help explore the story from multiple angles, keeping Doctor Vaernet at the centre of a varied perspective. Nic Kyle as the American Zack Travis handles the emotional weight of his character most effectively, proving a sympathetic match to Alexander Huetson's defeated Nikolai Bergsen. There is appropriate authority and derision from Bradley Clarkson's Nazi General who manages to command whilst not tipping into parody, providing the hypocritical centre of the drama along with his caged lover, Lee Knight's strong and resilient Georg Jensen. As the only female character Emily Lynne proves formidable yet sympathetic as Ilse Paulsen and juggles her sense of duty with her overriding view of what is right.
For all it's good intentions the play's dramatic centre is overshadowed by the history it is trying to present. Whilst documentary theatre has the ability to challenge, probe and ultimately change perspective, the heart of the drama needs to first rise to the fore to connect with and grip audiences at an emotional core. There is no doubt this is an important story and a passionately written play, and with some editing and refocusing, along with an external director's eye, it certainly has the potential to rise to that challenge.