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A CurtainUp London London Review

There are queer Nazis. And queer saints. And queer mediocrities. Just people.
---- Horst
Chris New as Horst and Alan Cumming as Max
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Martin Sherman’s powerful, searing 1979 play Bent about the life of a gay man in Germany in the 1930s gets a thrilling revival at the Trafalgar Studios. In only his second outing as a director in London’s West End, thirty year old Daniel Kramer presents a polished and innovative production. Of course the play’s strength is the wonderful Scottish actor Alan Cumming, but there are also brilliant performances from Chris New and Kevin Trainor. I didn’t see either of the previous two London productions of Bent with Ian McKellen, which came to Broadway, but on opening night there were many who had, who were very impressed with the latest showing.

Bent follows the story of Max (Alan Cumming), a gay man who lives with dancer Rudy (Kevin Trainor) in a flat in Berlin just as Hitler has come to power. We have a brief picture of their life of partying and fun before the house of cards collapses when in 1934 Ernst Röhm, an open homosexual and friend of Hitler, was killed in the event that has come to be known as "The Night of the Long Knives". Rõhm’s death signalled an end to Nazi tolerance of homosexuality and many of the leaders of his paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung or SA, were shot. Wolf (Benjamin Wilkin) who Max has brought home is brutally murdered onstage. Trying to get enough cash to leave, Max and Rudy visit drag artist Greta (Richard Bremmer) in one of the Berlin clubs popularised by gays. The "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour" meant persecution and arrest of anyone thought or reported to be homosexual.

Leave off reading this paragraph of the synopsis if you would rather not know the full story of the play now. Max and Rudy run away from Berlin and live near Cologne. Max’s rich, gay uncle Freddie (Hugh Ross) can only help one of them with papers to cross into Holland but Max decides not to leave Rudy. They are both captured by the police and sent to a prison or hard labour camp at Dachau in Southern Germany. On the train, Rudy is beaten by soldiers and Max is advised by Horst (Chris New) that if he wants to stay alive, not to admit that he knows Rudy. Max is made to beat Rudy with a truncheon and Rudy dies from multiple injuries. At the camp Max pretends to be Jewish rather than gay, and wears a yellow star rather than a pink triangle. He was advised by Horst that the worst treatment is meted out to homosexuals. Max and Horst fall in love with each other despite the privations of life breaking stones in the prison camp but dare not show that they have connected. In a very moving and uplifting scene, they talk through what a physical relationship would feel like for them. Max passes the test the guards set as to his supposed heterosexuality by making love to a dead 13 year old girl. Horst is tormented by the guards and shot and, after Horst’s death, Max changes the yellow star shirt for Horst’s shirt with a pink triangle in an act of affirmation and commits suicide by throwing himself on the electric fence.

There are some moments where we can see a great director in the making. The play itself is a roller coaster ride of violence in the first half, and humour and then quiet compassion in the second. Brilliant moments for me were when the white steam rises from the stage floor as we hear the whistle of the steam train and the lighting shift to narrow bands of light, as if the sun is shining through a wooden boarded train wagon. Or the phallic column of fire which accompanies the choreographed storm troopers. I’m not sure about the comic feel of the SS team whose arrival onstage signals extreme cruelty. Maybe their laughing underlines their lack of humanity? When the director wants create more intimacy, he places two actors sitting on the edge of the stage, their legs overhanging into the audience pit. Greta talks as she looks through the circular frame of an imaginary mirror, all vanity but actually she presents a terrifyingly gaunt picture with frightful makeup. I’m unsure as to why the drag artist scene is in Sherman’s play. This is only superfluous note for me in an exquisitely written and crafted play. Paul Anderson’s lighting lends atmosphere and authenticity, when moving stones in the heat, the lighting makes it feel sweltering and when the snow falls, we know how cold the prisoners are.

Alan Cumming starts the play as a naughty, provocative, social butterfly. He is wearing a kimono, has his hair cut with an angular bob and hanging fringe and he’s listening to Puccini. His dark eyes are always expressive. His provocative derrière up position on the sofa is not an invitation for sex but an inability to sit down after being bruised in a casual sex romp the night before with Storm Trooper Wolf. Much later, in the stone moving scene Horst and Max provide some witty humour for the audience to relax momentarily, even in that dire place. Cumming ends the play in high tragedy, moving, sympathetic, his shaved head symbolic of his ordeal, at its most poignant when the two men talk themselves to orgasm and then look sheepishly around to see if anyone noticed. Kevin Trainor is the delicate Rudy, playing a dancer, with a wonderful crack in his voice. Can this be the same Kevin Trainor I saw play Robert Stewart, the skinhead and deranged rascist in Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games? His range is excellent. But the discovery of the evening is Chris New who gives the performance of a lifetime as fellow prisoner Horst who wears his pink triangle with acceptance. He is so calm and intelligent and obviously a good man. His "crime" was signing a petition.

This play is not suitable for under 18s or for those who are disturbed by nudity or violence or explicit sexual acts.

Written by Martin Sherman
Directed by Daniel Kramer

Starring: Alan Cumming
With: Kevin Trainor, Benjamin Wilkin, Charles Mayer, Richard Bremmer, Hugh Ross, Matthew Spencer, Chris New, Ricky Champ, Laurence Spellman
Set Design: Robin Don
Costume Deasign: Mark Bouman
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking at the Trafalgar Studios to 13th January 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th October 2006 performance at the Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Tube: Charing Cross/Embankment)
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