Entering the theatre with the knowledge that I was about to watch a play involving the persecution of homosexuals, I expected to leave feeling sickened. And I can’t lie, I still felt a strong urge to hurl abuse at the play’s cruel ringleaders, the vicious Nazi SS officers played by Ricki Crook and Chris Trueman. However, my rather narrow preconceptions were soon challenged as the many layers of ‘Bent’ were revealed; with moments of comedy offsetting the tragedy and the performances of James Pardon as Max and John Bell (Horst) reminding the audience of the ability to love against all odds.
‘If you come out of the auditorium today in silence, I have done my job’ – Director Charlotte van Rhee
The all-male play ‘Bent’ follows the attempted escape of Max, a promiscuous homosexual, after he is forced to flee Berlin with his partner Rudy because of Nazi intolerance. Confined to bitter imprisonment and subject to great emotional strife, Max begins to lose his grip upon his true identity until he finds solace in the compassion of fellow prisoner, Horst. The play presents an interesting set of challenges for any group of actors and in this New Theatre production, the director was not afraid to confront the notorious scene in which Max and Horst reveal their sexual attraction to one other for the first time. Unconventionally, stood side-by-side, and without touching, they make love. Sound strange? Perhaps for those who haven’t seen the production. However, the passionate, desperate cries of Max and Horst as they finally release their pent up emotions and desires demonstrated a total lack of inhibition as Pardon and Bell successfully and fully inhabited their roles.
The entrance of Max (Pardon) and his flamboyant partner Rudy (played by Nick Slater) immediately introduced the comedic side to the play. Slater deserving special acclaim for his excellent sashay across the stage in the silk dressing gown which almost revealed a little too much! The passionate exchanges of the two men – with Rudy occasionally attending to his beloved collection of plants – were interrupted by the surreptitious entrance of Wolf (Joe Hincks) in a low-rise towel, flashing the audience a pair of sultry eyes much to their amusement. Unbeknown to the group on stage, and indeed the audience as they found themselves wrapped up in the comedy, tragedy lurked around the corner. Following the sudden intrusion of SS officers, which was a sequence in need of more choreography, the comedy took a darker turn. The facetious remarks of Horst, whilst detained in the Nazi concentration camp, became the chief source of dark humour as Bell unflinchingly stated ‘I think I’m really going to like it here’, producing a nervous laugh from audience members.
You could have heard a penny drop in the room as the lights went down
The changes to the set following the brief interval further captured the growing sense of tragedy. The actors were hemmed in by wire fences constructed to surround the edges of the stage, thus physically separating the actors from their audience creating a distancing effect. With the proxemics altered, Bell and Pardon were forced to work in an even more intense environment, successfully building towards the play’s dramatic denouement.
It was clear that the director, Charlotte van Rhee, invested a great deal of time in looking at the details of the production. The accuracy of the costumes, Max’s prisoner clothes being branded with the Jewish yellow star and Horst’s the pink triangle of the ‘queer’, contributed to the tight, professional nature of the production. This eye for detail extended to the interlacing of live singers throughout the production which held audience attention during the scene changes. At one point we were even treated to the deep notes of feisty drag queen Greta (Mike Bradley)!
Any minor mistakes, such as the slight fluffing of lines here and there, could be forgiven because of the clear dedication of the actors to their roles. I believe that the director achieved her wish when she stated in the programme: ‘If you come out of the auditorium today in silence, I have done my job’. Aside from the person trying to suppress muted sobs in the second row, you could have heard a penny drop in the room as the lights went down on the tragic final scene.
‘Bent’ is running at New Theatre until Saturday 22nd November, for more information see here
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