Bent at the National Theatre
This year’s Pride parade in London attracted the largest crowds in its 45-year history. Meanwhile, the National Theatre pays tribute to the LGBT community with a series of talks and events that includes a one-off rehearsed reading of the 1979 play Bent by Martin Sherman. Set in Nazi Germany, its intent is to draw attention to the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, a fact that was hardly acknowledged at the time and barely researched in the years following WWII. Ten male actors, scripts in hand, occupy ten chairs facing the audience. Each scene sees two or three of them come to the front and bring the characters alive. The paper scripts seem to disappear as the story takes shape, and the audience is reminded of the power of subtle body language and the weight that the actors’ emotional involvement can carry.
The action takes place in 1939 around the time of The Night of the Long Knives, the purge that saw many of Hitler’s opponents hunted down and killed in extrajudicial executions. The protagonist is Max, a man estranged by his wealthy family due to his homosexuality. He lives with his young lover Rudy, but allows himself occasional flings and wild nights. On one such occasion, Max brings home a Sturmabteilung member just as orders are given to assassinate them. Max and Rudy end up arrested and separated. When Max is taken to a concentration camp, he claims to be Jewish, believing that the star of David on the uniform will afford him better treatment than the pink triangle used to label gay prisoners.
Max connects with fellow prisoner Horst, a man who wears the pink triangle with pride, and the two develop a relationship from a distance while carrying out forced labour. Their blossoming love defies all the efforts that society takes to denounce the forming of such feelings, and this ultimately acts as an apt manifesto for the celebration of equal love. Aside from the overall message, the actors are brilliant at portraying the very different personalities of the characters. The play itself lacks plausibility at times, in the first half when events unfold too precipitately, and in the second when Max and Horst are left to work alone as a duo for months, and they flirt playfully whilst carrying heavy rocks in adverse weather conditions.
Regardless of these details, however, Bent perfectly serves its purpose as a homage to the LGBT movement and is a strong theatrical contribution to the Pride celebrations currently taking place.
Bent was at the Lyttelton Theatre on 9th July 2017 as part of Queer Theatre at the National Theatre.