Martin Sherman’s 1979 play Bent is very much a work of two halves, the first half broad, brash and harrowing, the second altogether more tender and human.
In this partially successful revival by director Daniel Kramer, Alan Cumming’s self-involved Max lives with his lover, a nave young dancer called Rudy, in permissive pre-war Berlin. Forced into hiding following Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, the couple’s lives collapse around them, with even the relief of an affectionate touch denied to them for fear of being exposed. They are reduced to living in tents, with Max scrabbling for any means to buy their way out of the country.
This first half, as I’ve mentioned, is broadly-played by all and defiantly over-the-top, with sheets of flame and blasts of Wagner, though the success of The Producers across town rather undermines the grotesque presence of the Nazis in some of these earlier scenes.
The second half is a very different affair, simpler and, as such, stronger. Now confined in a concentration camp, his relationship with Rudy having been forcibly terminated in the most appalling and bloody way possible, Max gradually finds himself growing closer to fellow inmate Horst, with whom he shares stone-moving work detail.
Max is a survivor, a man whose life to date has been a series of schemes and bargains, and having ‘proved’ that he is not gay, he is able to wear the yellow star of a Jew instead of the pink triangle of a homosexual in the camp’s dehumanising categorization system. Horst tries to make him ashamed for this act of self-denial.
As both actors pace the stage, carrying rocks from one place to another and back again in an endless, pointless cycle, their attraction to one another becomes palpable. In one of the most memorable sequences the two men stand side by side, arms by their sides and make love to one another without ever touching.
Alan Cumming gives a very mannered, tic-driven performance as Max, never appearing totally comfortable in the role. Though one of his character’s defining traits was his ability to slip through life unscathed, unaffected, there was something definitely lacking and the little glimmer of humanity glimpsed near the end was just not sufficient. Newcomer Chris New is far more powerful, and though you can occasionally see the ‘acting’, his feels a more solid portrayal. Hugh Ross however is excellent, in his brief appearance as Max’s Uncle Freddie – the park bench exchange between this ‘old fluff’ and his nephew is one of the dramatic highlights of the play.
Over 25 years old now, Bent can occasionally feel heavy-handed and a bit dated, but there is still little comparable writing out there and it remains a relevant work. A collective release of breath after a tense moment is always a sign that a play is having the desired effect upon its audience, and this production elicited several, especially during the final scenes. The emotional impact was heightened when Sonia Friedman and Sherman himself came onstage during the curtain call to announce the death of Tom Bell – who played Horst in the original Royal Court production of Bent alongside Sir Ian McKellen.