Venue: The Drama Barn
With drizzling rain, the weather slipping into autumn proper, and the mid-term blues lurking on the horizon, a raw, harrowing play about persecuted gay men and Nazis seems gloomily appropriate. However, despite the suitably bleak evening, this production of Bent didn’t quite deliver the harrowing heft that the subject matter would lead you to expect.
The play focuses on Max, a hedonistic gay man who makes the most of debauched 1930s Berlin, before the lacerating turn of history twists it all beyond recognition. A raucous start sets things off with a glimpse of Max’s fast-living nocturnal activities. One forgets just how liberal 1930s Weimar Berlin was – all the talk of men in leather, coke and haphazard threesomes seems pretty free and easy nowadays, let alone then. There’s a light-hearted quality in the beginning, wisely emphasised given that the rest of the play is anything but. For instance, the best costume revolves around some incredibly tight pants and a sleazily louche silk robe. It’s amusing and the subsequent sharp descent into bleakness goes some way to highlighting just how much everything changed after the horror and shock of Night of the Long Knives, when in 1934 the Nazis carried out a series of political killings in the hope of cementing Hitler’s absolute power. In the wake of this, Max and his lover Rudy flee. With liberalism a shredded memory, they are victims of situation – and the situation is not kind.
Leading as Max, Caolan Keaveney had a task. Whilst he cut a sympathetic figure, I question whether his acting skills were strong enough to shoulder the full weight of an exceptionally heavy play. The vulnerability, the desperation, the excruciating futility of all that pain – you could sense elements of it, but not the full reality. Whilst Keaveney was admirably lacking in self-consciousness, it still felt as if there was something he was holding back. If he were to really embody the part, let the awful animal aspect loose, the performance would leap from flickering to all-out crackling. Similarly, the sheer brutality of the Nazis wasn’t quite realised. Of course, it’s hard to be dredge up the requisite Nazi evil, but without that seething sense of brutality, their actions lost the shocking rawness. At moments it felt like the play was somewhat going through the motions and the necessary tension was slightly limp. For instance, without revealing the plot, the turn of events on the train didn’t deliver the impact it could have.
Eddie Kaziro was well-cast as Rudy, Max’s dancer lover. He was self-possessed and sparky, and the somewhat drama-queen vibes lent a real sense of character. Yet Kaziro also managed to convey enough tenderness so as to let the audience see why Max did love him. The moment when Kaziro and Keaveney sang together stood out, as not only do the two have good pipes, but it proffered a much needed moment of intimacy and humanity to the audience. Similarly, I liked Nick Newman’s approach. He played a handful of roles, and each was memorable – I came away feeling he’s gifted with that all too elusive ‘presence’. Leo Clasen gave a considered and wracked performance as a gay prisoner, and whilst he can clearly act, he and Keaveney did occasionally seem a little too disconnected from one another. They were certainly acting but were they truly acting together?
Sean Byrne’s clever lighting must not be overlooked. It was crucial in setting the right atmosphere and creating the sense of space that the limited set design needed. Since both text and set offered nothing to hide behind, it takes a very strong production to fully realise the intensity of such material. Whilst Marcus Crabb is clearly a thoughtful director, and the cast strong, there were points that needed work. Bent certainly delivered flashes and glimmers, but the lid needs to be lifted off, the tension heightened and the actors’ chemistry ignited to fully reveal its potential.