To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality, the National Theatre programmed a series of readings entitled ‘Queer Theatre;’ five plays, each dealing with LGBT themes. I wanted to get to see at least one of them and Bent seemed most likely, being read on a Sunday afternoon. But I was still hesitant – I’ve only been to one reading previously, and it felt more like academic politics than anything theatrical (It was Stuff Happens, almost exactly a year ago. It was very good academic politics, being read the day the Chilcot Report was released, but academic politics nonetheless.)
I also didn’t know Bent at all, apart from by name and something of its reputation. But I went in expecting to see a worthy presentation of a notable play in 20th century history. I think I expected something vaguely-1960s-social-realist. Bit like Edward Bond. Maybe it’s the one word title. It was the cast that made me want to see this one in particular, and I do like going to see things I know very little about. Because that way, you and be knocked sideways completely unexpectedly. And I was knocked sideways.
Bent follows Max, a gay man who at the start of the play lives in Berlin with his lover, Rudy, a dancer. They enjoy the vibrant nightlife afforded by the city before the Nazi clampdowns, sexually free and promiscuous. They are happy. Then, on what would become known as the Night of the Long Knives, Max brings a man home who is a member of the Sturmabteilung (basically Nazi paratroopers,) an associate of Ernst Röhm. Röhm and his associates were to be assassinated, and the SS barge into Max and Rudy’s flat, killing the paratrooper and forcing Max and Rudy to flee.
First off – the play is fantastic. It will be 40 years old next year, and it sounds like it was written yesterday. I don’t mean that in a clichéd way, in that the themes are still relevant (although they are) but the dialogue is utterly contemporary; nothing feels dated, the language sparkles and crackles. It holds up beautifully, no museum piece. It covers vast ideas and conflicts in about 90 minutes excluding the interval.
Within about a minute I knew my reservations were unfounded. Russell Tovey as Max and George MacKay as Rudy were giving performances, not simply giving voices to words in a script. MacKay in particular barely glanced at his script, and he has that gift of being able to take you on drifts of thought with him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Tovey’s Max is more elusive, and he became more assured as the play progressed. It’s a tough role; he doesn’t leave the stage, and he does commit horrendous acts for the sake of self-preservation. He is often unlikable, self-hating to a degree, and utterly desperate. He has a monologue in the first act describing how he managed to acquire a yellow star instead of a pink triangle, and it’s horrifying. Tovey played it with total simplicity.
And that cast. In addition to Tovey and MacKay, Paapa Essiedu played Horst, a man detained in Dachau assigned the pink triangle. Essiedu was excellent, brilliant comic timing. He and Tovey are responsible for the most hilarious sex scene I’ve seen on a stage since Unreachable. In fucking Dachau. Even Simon Russell Beale had a scene, playing Max’s somewhat-closeted Uncle, cruising in the parks. John Pfumojena’s short but sharp appearance in the first scene sets the tone, while Giles Terera, in heels, played the owner of the club frequented by Max and Rudy, and Pip Torrens’ understated performance as an SS officer was beautifully chilling. Again, single scene appearances, but like Russell Beale, complete characters all.
When you pair that with the brilliance of Sherman’s play– I really can’t overstate how good I think it is – and the starkness afforded by the reading context, it’s no surprise in hindsight that it builds to such an emotional crescendo. The audience stood at the end, I think as shocked as I was to see this old play rise to such extraordinary heights.
There was a Q&A after the reading. Sherman and Stephen Daldry – who directed the reading – talked with Michael Cashman, who had appeared in Bent in its most recent run at the National in 1990. It was the first play Daldry saw in London, but as Sherman described, it’s a miracle it was put on at all. The theatre company he was working with – The Gay Sweatshop – encouraged him to put it out into the world, as with them it would live and probably die in a tiny space with little impact. But it was so shocking that there wasn’t a theatre in London that would touch it. The Royal Court only took it because there was a West End producer attached and Ian McKellen, then the darling of the RSC, was to play Max. Whenever I hear a story like that I always remember that theatre as a progressive art form is largely a myth. It can be as bad as the rest. Sherman said that the West End run of Bent had to be conclude by November because “it couldn’t be on at Christmas.”
Sherman had dared to put gay lives on stage, and dared to argue that their suffering in detention camps was worse than that of Jewish detainees. He sparked historical research into the experience of gay men during the Holocaust, and the tragedy that goes beyond that, with homosexuality still being illegal after the Nazis’ defeat. Men who had suffered hugely, and seen horrendous things, could not talk about why they were in concentration camps for fear of being thrown back into jail. It’s horror upon horror upon horror. No wonder Sherman says his motives for writing the play were completely political.
The play itself is a historical act now though, Cashman describing how the National’s 1990 production came about from a one-night-only reading to benefit Stonewall, an organisation that he and McKellen were founding members of. It was probably Cashman who talked about the play in the most emotional terms, describing what it was like to play in Bent every night, when Margaret Thatcher had only recently implemented Section 28 into law. It’s a play of defiance, and anger at its heart.
And THANK GOD for intelligent questions from the audience. But I suppose this was an audience that cared about more than flattering the people on stage. Bent matters. It set the precedent for the LGBT plays that followed – the significance of the reading taking place on the set of Angels in America was not lost on me. Apparently there’s a full London production in the works for next year, to mark its 40th anniversary. I look forward to seeing it.