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Pulling Focus for the Tabard Theatre, ADK Productions and Theatrica Ltd. present

 

Bent

Russell Morton as Max in Bent at the Tabard Theatre

 

by Martin Sherman

 

Director Andrew Keates

 

Tabard Theatre

 

6 July to 8 August 2010

 

 

 

 

 

1

A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!

A man who had seen Bent at the Royal Court in 1979 when it was first presented told me that it was built up in the gay community as the occasion when Ian McKellen would come out of the closet while playing the central character, Max. The fact that he didn’t says a lot about the taboos around homosexuality at the time although he is now a well known campaigner for gay rights and appeared in the film Bent as Uncle Freddie. So Martin Sherman’s play addressed homophobia in at least two time periods, the 1930s and the 1970s.

This was the first play to deal with the Nazi’s attempts to systematically annihilate gay men whom they saw as ‘perverts’. The play opens with a familiar scene of decadent 1930s Berlin with Max (Russell Morton)and dancer Rudy (Steven Butler) having a stereotypically bitchy exchange in camp dressing gowns with Max trying to establish how his drunken night at Greta’s club ended until a naked young SA trooper, ‘Wolf’ (Owen Pullar) emerges from the rumpled bedclothes. The arguments over how to pay the rent and continue this hedonistic lifestyle are interrupted by the SS who burst in and cut Wolf’s throat. This is ‘The Night of the Long Knives’, Hitler’s right hand man and leader of the SA, Ernst Rohm is already dead and will not be seen in the gay clubs again, so the drag queen Greta, gives Max and Rudy a reality check and convinces them it’s time to get out of Berlin. However, in spite of the Oscar Wildish Uncle Freddie’s (David Meyer) attempts to save Max, he and Rudy find themselves on a train to Dachau where Max is advised by Horst (David Flynn) on how to survive if you are gay and wearing the pink triangle - he must never be seen touching or even looking at another man. For Max to survive, the loving, gentle, all-forgiving Rudy must not exist. The SS order Max to join them in beating Rudy to death. Although he refused to abandon Rudy in Berlin to satisfy his family, Max now energetically denies he even knows him. In Dachau, Max adopts the Jewish Star of David rather than the pink triangle deciding he will survive and so will Horst.

However, Horst wears the pink triangle on principle and challenges Max to do the same. Max has only ever done what is expedient so the idea of doing something on principle is a new concept which all his baser instincts tell him to resist.

The relationship that develops between the two men in the camp while they move rocks from A to B then back again is the pivot of the play. Martin Sherman’s repetitive dialogue mirrors the action. Horst has come to the camps because he signed a petition for homosexual freedom and is treated even worse than the Jews because he is gay. His strength wanes with his health but Max gradually finds a new spirit and integrity in this relationship and discovers resources that can help them both to survive. Meanwhile they fall in love in these, the most unlikely of circumstances. In his personal account of the Holocaust ‘If this is a Man’, Primo Levi argued that only the worst survive and at times we may think that Max is such a survivor but as well as raising these more universal questions about humanity, we are never allowed to forget that this play is dealing with actual history and real, brutal oppression. The set design by Freya Groves is very effective, taking us from the hazy indolence of Max and Rudy’s flat and the dark appeal of Greta’s nightclub in Berlin to the hard lines of rock, wire and quicklime of the camps and the lighting by Howard Hudson changed accordingly but even as Max lay sprawled on the rumpled bed in the opening scene, the words ‘Arbeit macht frei’ leer menacingly from the headboard.

The play is notorious because the two men bring each other to orgasm just with words and imagination, no touching or looking is possible while they stand to attention beneath the guard’s observation tower.

These scenes had none of the toe-curling embarrassment one might expect, due to very fine acting on the part of David Flynn as Horst and Russell Morton as Max but were life-affirming, moving and convincing. It is difficult to imagine identifying with a man who has sex with a dead minor to convince the guards he is not gay but audience empathy stayed with Max because of the credibility Morton gave the character on his journey from decadent self-serving dandy to a defiant self-consciousness, hard won through suffering.  David Flynn played Horst as a likeable working-class Scouser, while Max was obviously from a well-heeled and indulgent though censorious family so the suggestion is that class is no barrier to their bond as oppressed gay men. Horst’s secret signal of wiping his eyebrow to tell Max he loves him is deeply romantic and David Flynn’s acting brought depth to the sadness experienced by the audience on behalf of these characters. Max’s final outburst of love and his questioning of what can be wrong with loving this man was also shared by the audience. The Nazis attempt to reduce the men to madness through brutality and meaningless labour fails because they decide not to be victims. This ability to at least spiritually rise above even the most hostile circumstances is one we could do well to foster in our own age of victimhood today.

Tabard Theatre
2 Bath Road, W4 1LW,

Box Office: 08448 472 264

Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4pm
Extra Performances: Sat 7th Aug 4pm & Sun 8th Aug 7.30pm

 

 

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