At last week’s Outing to Bent at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, 175 Whatsonstage.com theatregoers were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with playwright Martin Sherman, director Daniel Kramer, and the show’s stars, Alan Cumming and newcomer Chris New.

In Nazi Germany, homosexual Max (Cumming) is sent to Dachau, his lover killed en route. At the concentration camp, he denies being gay, preferring to wear the yellow star of the Jews, but when he falls in love with fellow prisoner Horst, he must make a stand. Ian McKellen starred as Max in the 1979 premiere production at the Royal Court and in the 1990 revival at the National Theatre.

During the post-show Q&A, chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock, Cumming and New talked about the challenges of their roles and tapping into the emotion of the piece without being overwhelmed by it – and also offered amusing impersonations of Ian McKellen and John Gielgud - while Sherman and Kramer discussed their artistic inspirations. Highlights of the discussion follow…


Martin Sherman on writing the play & his involvement with this revival

  • In 1977 I went to see a play at Gay Sweatshop and it made me think about the fact there were no plays at the time about gay living by gay writers. There were a number of things I wanted to write about and they all came together with Bent. I wanted to write it because nobody knew about what happened to gay people in concentration camps, but I had no idea it would have the kind of impact that it did.
  • I was quite involved (in this production), partly because I love rehearsing. A lot of writers say they don’t like rehearsing and they spend their whole time hidden away, but they’ve got to have that interaction as well with a production. I think (a writer’s life) really should be a balance of 50 percent solitary and the other 50 percent interaction.

    Daniel Kramer on why he wanted to direct Bent

    I grew up on a sheep farm in Ohio in a very fundamentalist Christian town. I saw the play when I was 16 and I remember, as a young gay man living in a closeted world, how it gave me hope that I would get out…. Politically, I have a lot of reservations about soldiers in Iraq and behaviour at Guantanamo, and I think this is also a play about how boys abuse their power. I just thought “it’s happening again, we’re doing it all again”. And it felt important to speak out about how minority groups are being segregated by the powers that be.

    Alan Cumming on returning to the West End

  • I hadn’t meant to be away from the theatre for so long. There were several times when I nearly did a stage play and then a movie came along, so I was sort of actively looking for a play to do. This really is such an amazing play…. It’s just such a great role that any actor would give all their teeth to do. It’s one of those things that comes along and really challenges you. When people ask why do you want to be an actor, I say it’s because I want to make people think and to affect them. I feel very politically as well as emotionally in tune with this piece.
  • I think the play is so great because it just happens to us. At the start, it’s almost like we’re doing a homo Noel Coward farce. But then the shock comes and the play deepens, and it all just happens from there. It’s very fast and pacey. That’s what I really like about it, it just takes us on this journey. At the beginning of the play, we’re having fun, and then literally the fun stops and all we can do is react.
  • Max’s way of dealing with love is to feel responsible for (his lovers) and do deals for them and look after them. I think, with the second love scene when he says he’s holding Horst, that’s when he gets over his hang-ups and actually allows himself some real tenderness. I think from that point Max feels he can accept love. The last person he loved got killed in front of him so he doesn’t want to love again because he’s so worried about hurting the person he loves, and being hurt himself.
  • Ian McKellen came to see (the play). He once gave me this lambasting, and I said “guess what, I’m going to be playing your role in Bent”. When he came to see it, and I said to him “is it like looking in a mirror?” and he said “oh it’s so fantastic, I was thinking through all the parts you had to go through, reliving all of it and thinking about all the lines”. I told Martin about that and he said “so finally he knows his lines?!”

    Daniel Kramer on working with Cumming & New

    Alan has really led the company from day one. He is the most generous joyous actor I’ve ever worked with. He’s just there and with every scene he brought it to the table. I could see where Alan wanted to go and sometimes I’d push him and sometimes pull him, but it always worked. Before working with Alan, I’d never had fun in rehearsals before…. I suppose there’s some sense of finding out which language we’re speaking in terms of how I communicate and how he communicates. In the first week of rehearsal, you always cling to your strong points. I come from a very physical background so I was saying things like “move your pinky, blink there”, and he was like “woah, back off a little bit there”. With Chris, because he’s a little bit more green, just out of drama school, he would do anything I suggested… The longer you’ve been in the business, the stronger you are about your ideas and your own interpretation of the role. Alan would always offer me something. If he didn’t agree exactly with what I was saying, he would offer me an alternative. Chris also has so much joy…. What they were going through on stage, they also did off stage – they didn’t fall in love and become lovers – but they are great friends off stage now, and it is beautiful.

    Chris New on making his West End debut with Cumming in Bent

    It was a bit of a baptism of fire. For about a week I couldn’t stop smiling. You know when you’re walking down the road and just smiling at nothing and people look at you really strangely? And then for a week I got really scared, and now it’s okay. I’m retiring now. I’m going to be a one-hit wonder.

    - by Caroline Ansdell