By Tom Barry
As the Nazis consolidate their grip over Germany and Europe, Bent is a heartbreakingly intimate play concerning the plight of only three men over its entire course. The libidinous Max and his sweet, self-effacing partner Rudy enjoy bohemian lives of impoverished luxury in the heady cultural cocktail of the Weimar Republic, blissfully ignorant of the oncoming storm about to march across them and everything they know.
The first half is surprisingly light; even having witnessed the violent arrest of another homosexual by the Nazis, Max and Rudy remain reluctant to leave the country that is their home. Or each other. By the second half, the plot takes a dramatic and tragic turn, changing into something far darker and yet more inspiring than before.
Caolan Keaveney’s performance of Max is understated and unsure; certainty is a luxury that no character can afford in this play, with their world turned upside down. His goodness and his selfishness are coupled convincingly into a portrayal of someone deeply conflicted, who is broken by the traumas he suffers, as so many did. Bent is his story, and Keaveney’s focus never falters, even as his character’s faith does. Eddie Kaziro as Rudy meanwhile immediately fosters goodwill for the idiosyncratic way he shows his love for Max, undented by both Max’s infidelity and the threat of death for the act of loving another man. The whole cast in fact is united in their eagerness for the story to be told, and told well.
A play about the abysmal treatment of homosexuals under the Third Reich was never going to be raucous comedy, nor should it be. But despite the dour setting, arguably unrivalled for its sheer horror, Bent is a remarkably funny play.
Its pacing is deliberately jagged and unintuitive, simulating the erratic flow of time for the characters involved; the unreality of their situation conveyed with minimal setting of place, nothing for them or the audience to hold onto or keep them steady in a convulsing world twisted by the agony of a most calculated oppression. The play’s tone is fluid, and the audience’s minds must run to keep pace with Max and Rudy as they flee Germany for their lives; it is pointed, barbed even, like the wire that frames its second half. Its point is a good one, perhaps the best point a live performance can make, and it succeeds in saying something original about a historical period analysed more than any other in our time. But it comes across confusedly; the overall design and control of focus is experimental, and occasionally fails in some technical aspect as often as it succeeds. The closeness of the Drama Barn is used sometimes to chilling effect, and sometimes it renders what would have been devastating, unreal and impotent.
A play about the abysmal treatment of homosexuals under the Third Reich was never going to be raucous comedy, nor should it be. But despite the dour setting, arguably unrivalled for its sheer horror, Bent is a remarkably funny play. The laughs are made to mask the tears, but even in the coffin of the Dachau death camp, spirits remain defiantly uplifted against the tyranny ranged against them. For a genre dissected so thoroughly (for dwelling on the Holocaust has rightly assumed the status of a moral obligation), I heard stories told I had not yet heard, and the characters will stay with me I think for quite some time to come.
Bent by Martin Sherman, directed by Marcus Crabb, was performed at the Drama Barn from the 21st-23rd of October 2016.