Bent (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: July 10, 2017 in Theatre


This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

On the weekend when the 50th Anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being celebrated, this rehearsed reading of Martin Sherman’s landmark play Bent, acts as a sobering reminder of the horrors to which victimisation can lead.

Stephen Daldry, then a young student, saw the play on its initial London run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1979 and the strong impact that it made on him has drawn him to direct the staging here, allowed only a few hours rehearsal over three days. Sherman’s play is a harrowing account of the Nazi persecution of gay men in pre-World War II Germany. The story is shocking and difficult to comprehend in modern Britain, but Daldry’s revival is pertinent in pointing to policies of authoritarian regimes across the world today, perhaps most specifically in Africa.

Sharing an apartment in the licentious Berlin of 1934, Max (Russell Tovey) and Rudy (George Mackay) bicker, struggle to make ends meet and enjoy clubbing, drugs and casual promiscuity. The lively domestic comedy of the play’s opening scene assumes a chill air when, in a throwaway remark, Max speaks derisively of his Jewish landlord; Max and Rudy are aware that the Third Reich has arrived, but not that it is about to knock at their own door.

In the two years that follow, the couple flees to Hamburg, Stuttgart and Cologne, where Max’s uncle (Simon Russell Beale) offers to help him with a changed identity and a passage to Amsterdam. However, Max, who had held back shows of affection towards his partner, refuses to leave without him. Tovey plays Max as outwardly hedonistic and selfish, but he brings out his inner turmoil, contrasting beautifully with Mackay’s sensitive, outgoing Rudy. Their destination is not to be Amsterdam, but a detention camp at Dachau.

The second act takes place entirely at Dachau, where detainees are forced to move heavy rocks from one pile to another and then back again, pressed by guards who treat their lives as cheap. Detainees are categorised, a yellow star identifying a Jew and, lowest of the low, a pink triangle for a homosexual. Forever prepared to do deals and make compromises, Max manages to wear a yellow star, but he befriends Horst, played with touching dignity by Paapa Essiedu, who wears his pink triangle with pride. Sherman’s calls for gay people to be honest and open may have had more urgency in 1979, but they still hit with force today.

Performed in the Lyttelton Theatre on the set currently in use for Angels in America, this reading cannot offer the visual impact of a full staging, but much compensation comes from superb performances that bring out all the complex emotions. Sherman’s writing is unflinching. When there is sentimentality, it is subtle, never overpowering and the bleak inevitability of the play’s narrative is outshone by its fierce championing of the unbreakable human spirit.

Performance date: 9 July 2017

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