Olivier and Tony Award-winning Scotsman Alan Cumming, who has been based in the US since accompanying Sam Mendes’ 1998 production of Cabaret to Broadway, returned to the West End to star in Daniel Kramer’s revival of Bent, which opened last night (5 October 2006, previews from 22 September) at the Trafalgar Studios (See Today’s 1st Night Photos).
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 (Chris New), he must make a stand.
Written by Martin Sherman, Bent was first seen in London in 1979 at the Royal Court, when the role of Max was created by Ian McKellen, who also appeared in the 1990 National Theatre revival. The new stage production is designed by Mark Bouman and features a new song by the Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe. Cumming and New are joined in the cast by Kevin Trainor, Benjamin Wilkin, Richard Bremmer, Hugh Ross, Ricky Champ, Charles Mayer, Laurence Spellman and Matthew Spencer.
Overnight critics had mixed opinions about Sherman and Kramer’s bold approach to sensitive issues, which many felt undermined the emotional power of the piece, while Alan Cumming’s lead performance did not totally win them over. But all were full of praise for recent RADA graduate Chris New, making his West End debut as Horst. In smaller parts, Hugh Ross, Kevin Trainor and Richard Bremmer also received plaudits.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (3 stars) – “On the one hand, Bent is as terrifyingly banal as it is terrifyingly sentimental. On the other, its dramatic crudity and flagrancy is exactly the point…. In the Berlin scenes – where Richard Bremmer plays a hauntingly cadaverous transvestite singer at his dressing table - Cumming is full of devilry, reclining lasciviously on the sofa while trying to remember who (and how many) came back to the flat he shares with Kevin Trainor’s devoted Rudy…. Things become tenser in what remains my favourite scene from the play, the park bench encounter with ‘Uncle’ Freddie (beautifully done by Hugh Ross)…. Then things become ugly as the Nazi thugs take over and, on the train to Dachau, Max is compelled to complete the murder of Rudy by hitting him with a truncheon…. Just as we have entered a place of no return, the second act friendship of Max and Horst, lugging their stones in the bleak compound, restores our faith in humanity.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “Daniel Kramer's revival has an aura of flamboyant excitability at odds with a movingly restrained play…. precisely because the content is so explosive, the play demands a certain restraint. In the first half, however, we get a heightened theatricality…. a Nazi stormtrooper, after the invasion of Max's flat, exits with a gratuitous wave that would not be out of place in The Producers…. Fortunately, the atmosphere calms down in the second half when we see Max and Horst engaged in the futile activity of hauling a pile of rocks from one side of the stage to the other. In one extraordinary scene, we see them achieving mutual orgasm through the power of words alone… a moving demonstration of the power of passion to transcend circumstance…. Like the production, Alan Cumming's Max also improves steadily as it goes along…. He is also well-partnered by Chris New who lends Horst a prickly defensiveness that slowly turns to love. Richard Bremmer as a drag-queen and Hugh Ross as a camouflaged homosexual are outstanding while the Nazi stormtroopers are uniformly awful.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Martin Sherman's historic Bent, which fixes its unflinching gaze upon two gay men imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, left me scarcely less horrified, disturbed and revolted by its violence and cruelty than at its 1979 Royal Court premiere. Yet scenes of brutality, in which gay men are tortured, beaten to death and shot, scrupulously avoid the gruesome sensationalism of Jacobean playwrights or Tarantino's cinematic blood-baths. Daniel Kramer's under-powered production even misguidedly dons the velvet glove of restraint when the play turns nastiest, while Alan Cumming conspicuously fails to summon up serious emotion…. It is the play's cruel irony that Max, for whom love has mattered little, discovers the real thing in the death-camp…. Cumming's light, stiff, shuttered performance cracks no hearts even at the poignant finale, but Chris New, fresh to the London stage, all haggard and harrowed, shattering in fear and anxiety, steals the show.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (4 stars) – “Bent is a forthright, dignified play about the persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s Germany. When it premiered in 1979, it must have had shocking novelty value. Today, its bold depiction of gay love may not be quite so surprising. This production has flair. The acting is intense yet often good-humoured. There are ingenious touches…. But does Bent touch the heart? For me, the answer was ‘not quite’. I feel bad saying so…. But my heterosexual heart, though brushed, was not entirely stirred by Bent’s love theme…. Cumming and New do fine work here. Bent, despite my quibbles, is a technically accomplished, artistically ambitious evening. It makes you wince. But it did not make me cry.”
Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express - “Two years after being carved from the old Whitehall Theatre, the Trafalgar Studios has its first blockbuster hit…. At times the most homosexually explicit and violent show in town… it also happens to be a brilliant play about persecution under the Nazis…. Alan Cumming (gives) a breathtaking and doubtless soon-to-be award-winning performance…. Bent is about the importance and overriding power of friendship, even in the most unthinkable circumstances. In a production of intense power by director Daniel Kramer, it is also brilliantly played.”
- by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock