When Bent was first performed in 1979, the details of Nazi persecution of homosexuals were relatively unknown, and although the play was instrumental in increasing the research into the subject, it remains somewhat obscure today. This adds to, but certainly doesn’t account for, the enduring impact of Martin Sherman’s brutal yet touching, devastating yet hopeful play.
Set in Nazi Germany during and in the aftermath of The Night of the Long Knives, Bent follows Max as he moves from the permissive, seedy decadence of the Berlin club scene to the bleak confines of Dachau, a concentration camp for Jews, political activists and homosexuals.
Max (Russell Morton) is promiscuous, hedonistic and openly gay and when the play begins he is living with his lover, Rudy (Steven Butler), a plant loving dancer who works at a Berlin ‘queer club’. When Max picks up a condemned SA man he and Rudy become entangled in the political purge and are pursued and captured by the SS. Horst (David Flynn) is a fellow prisoner who is made to wear a pink triangle to identify him as homosexual. He tells Max that the ‘pink triangles’ are treated worse than any other prisoner in Dachau, so Max strikes a terrible deal to obtain a Jewish yellow star instead.
The two men struggle to survive the forced labour, lack of food and cruel treatment of the guards. They cannot touch, they can barely look at each other and yet they begin to fall in love, an act of ‘free will’ in the otherwise unbearable confines of the camp.
Sherman’s characters are somewhat underdeveloped (though sometimes tantalisingly so) but this is countered by the very fine performances from the entire cast. Russell Morton and David Flynn in particular are superb as Max and Horst, whose love affair is conducted at arm’s length, their caresses given in words. Their relationship is incredibly moving, powerful and erotic and their secret love is an act of defiance and a triumph of the human spirit over the dehumanising humiliation of the camp.
Andrew Keates’ direction is elegant and precise and Freya Groves’ design indicates that hostilities towards homosexuality exist outside the electrified fences of the concentration camp. In light of recent events in Africa the play is still frighteningly relevant. However, this production is more than just history and sexual politics; Bent is a beautifully written play about an extraordinary love affair, powerfully directed and acted with skill.