Minimal movement and minimal set was dwarfed by the language of Bent. Language heavy with passion and fear yet delivered perfectly with poetic pace and rhythm. On reading the description, ‘harrowing play’, on the Lace Market Theatre website I was apprehensive, expecting a blast of pain and torment from beginning to end. I was pleased to be mistaken. There was pain and torment yet this was accompanied by a surprising amount of wit (harnessed from script rather than portrayal) – not comic relief, but a thankful pause giving the play a touch of humanity which strengthened the horror of the suffering they punctuated.
The opening scene presented us with a farce of the-morning-after and a stereotype of the Berlin underground seen in Cabaret; the silk dressing gowns and the good-looking naked man who casually passes through. At first, Lewis Brookbanks’ portrayal of Rudy began a little statically, with a few stiff deliberate gestures, before settling into his character comfortably; by the end of Act One he had our full attention and sympathies. The sudden lighting change when the Nazis, who we have all been waiting for, arrived sadly reminded us we were watching an amateur production; a change of light must equal a change of mood. I felt it would have been a braver choice for the director to preserve the brightness of the first scene, even when the mood had altered, for the play did endorse an acceptance of reality.
The first few scenes were a little jerky and scene changes distracted us from the story; Greta’s (Jim Brooks) dress scrapped across the floor breaking our concentration and undermined Brooks’ strong singing voice. We were conscious of the stage and its limitations. When Uncle Freddie (Piotr Wisniewski) appeared the energy began to increase to peak in a riveting – and completely professional – Act Two. At their height the actors could give so much just from their voice. The juxtaposition of still bodies and powerful, desperate, voices conveyed the issue of restraint and frustration beautifully – this was best illustrated in Act Two’s ‘sex scene’; incredibly erotic and passionate and the actor’s merely stood side by side.
At times whilst sitting in the audience, ourselves restrained, I wanted to jump up and beg Max to make a heroic movement to save the people around him and my irritation proves the director’s success in harnessing the same feeling of helplessness the characters had to endure. It was not a play about heroes and it was not – again I find fault with the website’s advertisement – a play about ‘a love story’. Instead, it was a play of humanity, both terrifying and lovely.
The star of the performance was undoubtedly Paul Johnson (Max). Damian Frendo gave us a flawless and beautifully measured portrayal as the steady and pure Horst, but Johnson seized gold for his deeply moving portrayal of the most challenging character. His performance was, at its emotional height, distressing to witness.
On leaving the auditorium it was remarked that this was not a play to be ‘enjoyed’, yet it was enjoyed in so much that we were engaged by it. The production was a little rough around the edges and at times the strength of the script was what held it up, but there was a large amount of energy and deep thought put into its creation and ultimately it did respectable justice to a complex and highly significant play.
Eve Wersocki Morris
Images by Mark James