Monday, 10 July 2017

'Bent' at the National Theatre

Yesterday I went to to see a staged reading of 'Bent' at the National Theatre. It was on the Lyttelton stage on which 'Angels in America' is currently playing and the scenery for that play was in the background. So, a play about gay men in the '80s as the background to a play about gay men in the '30s. The reading was part of a short series of 'LGBT+ Readings' as the National Theatre's contribution to Pride 2017. I've never seen 'Bent' so this was a good opportunity to hear it.

The chairs were set out in a row at the front of the stage and the actors walked on and took their seats, with a narrator reading out the stage directions and book-ending each scene. It starts out in Berlin after the Nazis have taken power but before the war. Max is a young man living with his boyfriend Rudy who also likes to invite others back home for sex when he's drunk.

The day starts with a hangover and Max not remembering what happened the night before like many other mornings. This morning, however, the Gestapo break into their flat because Max's shag last night is wanted by them. This implicates Max and Rudy who flee to the nightclub that Rudy works at seeking help. They then go on the run to stay ahead of the Gestapo and Max tries to do a deal with his wealthy family to help them get to Amsterdam through his uncle who is also gay but lives a more discreet lifestyle. They're arrested and, on a transport train to Dachau, Max denies knowing Rudy and is forced to hurt him so severely that Rudy dies. Max denies being gay and insists that he's Jewish so that he wears the yellow star rather than the pink triangle.

The second act takes place in Dachau with Max and Horst, who is gay with a pink triangle on his jacket, working together and slowly falling in love with each other. They can only talk for a few seconds as they move a pile of rocks but the relationship deepens. When Horst falls ill the prison guard instructs him to commit suicide by retrieving his hat from an electric fence. Instead of meekly dying Horst attacks the guard and is shot and Max is instructed to get rid of the body in a pit used to dispose of bodies. Max does so and returns to his work only to jump into the pit to retrieve Horst's jacket and put it on before walking into the electric fence himself, finally acknowledging who he really is. The stage direction read out says that lights at the back of the stage flare and blind the audience.

It's a powerful piece of writing and the actors were all really good, a small cast that only got together for a first rehearsal three days before the reading. Simon Russell Beale played fruity uncle Freddy who likes a bit of 'fluff', George Mackay was Rudy, Paapa Essiedu was Horst and Russell Tovey was Max. Russell is very familiar with that stage since he's currently in 'Angels in America'. All three young men were excellent and gave understated, controlled performances which brought even more emotion to the stage since such horrific things were happening to them. They deserved the standing ovation at the end of the play.

It was followed by a too-short Q&A chaired my Michael Cashman with Martin Sherman (writer) and Stephen Daldry (director). Well done all!

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