Saturday, July 15, 2017

BENT Rehearsed Reading at the Lyttelton Theatre: The Power of Words...

With it's combination of Pride and celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the England and Wales, last weekend was probably the best time to revisit the thought-provoking and understated horror of Martin Sherman's BENT, staged as a rehearsed reading as part of the National Theatre's celebration of Queer Theatre.

How, I had wondered, would the play fare as a reading; it's a play that thrives on images as well as words, images that linger long in the mind.  But I had reckoned without Stephen Daldrey's insightful and nuanced handling of the text and the exemplary performances of his cast.  In the Q&A afterward he revealed that he had about seven hours in total to rehearse the reading which elicited a gasp of surprise from the audience as it was a seamless performance.

On 14th August 1979, a group of us who worked at Claude Gill Books in Piccadilly went for a night out at the Criterion, our neighbouring theatre.  I am not sure if we knew what the play was about but we emerged poleaxed.  We made for Henekey's pub next door and I remember not only being unable to speak about what I had just seen but being vaguely angry that my straight colleagues were even trying to discuss it.  I wasn't out (but felt I didn't need to be) and it was possibly the first time I had experienced seeing gay men represented as anything other than camp caricatures; this was my first exposure to BENT, seen in it's original production directed by Robert Chetwyn and starring Ian McKellen and Tom Bell.

That production haunted me, in particular the wonderful understated performance of Tom Bell as Horst, contrasting against the usual overly-showy McKellen.  I saw it again in 1990 in Sean Mathias' less-memorable production which again starred Serena opposite the milquetoast Michael Cashman.  Cashman chaired the Q&A afterward and was very eloquent about how that production not only came to be staged initially as a fundraiser to set up the charity Stonewall to fight Section 28 but also how Richard Eyre invited the production to be staged at the National Theatre.

Again talk of that initial fundraiser at the Adelphi in 1989 made me mentally beat myself up about not seeing it as it meant I missed Ian Charleson's performance of club-ower Greta, less than 6 months later he had died.  Cashman spoke fondly about Ian and it always makes me smile when I hear my favourite actor remembered with love.  Mathias' production also led to his 1997 film which is a fairly inert experience.  But that was then and this is now... 

Russell Tovey was excellent as Max, the black sheep of a wealthy family who has found Wiemar Berlin to be his playground: making black-market deals, living on his wits, selling drugs and finding plenty of men to play with despite his relationship with dancer Rudy (sweetly petulant George MacKay).  The play starts out as a comedy with Rudy tartly telling a hungover Max about what he got up to during his drunken binge but the tone darkens when the SS arrive to arrest Max's pickup Wolf who is a member of Ernst Rohm's SA, it's the morning after "The Night of the Long Knives" when Hitler had Rohm's Brownshirts organization liquidized by the SS.  Wolf is murdered and the lovers are on the run.

They turn to Greta, the self-serving owner of the gay club but Greta, although gay, has a wife and children to hide behind, and he even reveals he betrayed them to the SS to deflect attention from his club.  Giles Terera seized all the opportunities the role offers and sang Greta's haunting song "Streets of Berlin" very well, indeed it seemed to linger in the air throughout the play.  Max and Rudy's hopes of escaping to Amsterdam are dashed when Max's closeted Uncle Freddie can only supply a single ticket which Max refuses; in this one small scene, Simon Russell Beale was delicious.

Max and Rudy are finally arrested and deported to Dachau as "Anti-social" members of society.  On the train Rudy is singled out for brutality by an officer (all the SS officers were played with understated terror by Pip Torrens) and Max is made to help beat him to death to prove he means nothing to him.  Max later reveals that he was also forced to have sex with a dead Jewish girl to prove he is not gay and once at the camp wears a yellow star to prove he is a Jew which actually wins him more concessions once in the camp.

There he meets gay political activist Horst (a powerful Paapa Essiedu) who witnessed what happened on the train and who wears a pink triangle and is disgusted that Max is denying his reality.  Max gets Horst onto his mind-numbing but relatively safe work detail of moving rocks from one pile to another next to the camp's electric fence.  Slowly the men prove that love can flourish in the stoniest of ground and Horst even verbally makes love to Max during one of their enforced rest periods standing a few feet apart.  But eventually - and in the worst circumstance - Max must admit to the world and himself that he is a homosexual...

As I said the play for me had lived in memory through it's visuals - Greta's drag act, the shadowy train, the bare stage with it's electrified fence (and constant low-level humming), two piles of rocks and a death-pit as well as the visual shock of Wolf's onstage nudity - but here, with just Sherman's text to concentrate on, it proved riveting and possibly will be the version of the play I most remember.

Martin Sherman spoke about it's history: written for Gay Sweatshop, the artistic director deliberately passed on it so it could be seen by a bigger audience but it was initially rejected by the Royal Court and Hampstead would only stage it with a gay director - none of whom took up the challenge.  Finally picked up by director Robert Chetwyn and with the star names of Ian McKellen and Tom Bell attached, it was finally staged at the Royal Court to huge popular appeal - but still with Court management disapproval and fairly hostile press reviews.  No leading West End producers would touch it until the independant producer Eddie Kulukundis brought it in to the Criterion (which is where I came in!) but only on the proviso from the Society of West End Theatre that it would be gone by December as it would be distasteful to be seen at Christmas time in the West End.  Fairly shameful eh?  Stephen Daldry also commented on the impact the production made on him as a young theatregoer. 

As was also touched on in the after-show discussion, BENT's power to shock and move is ever-timely and there was a hint that there might be a new revival next year.  I am so glad I had the opportunity to see this...

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