Times go on changing. Most of us now know about the pink star of shame in the Nazi death camps. But when Martin Sherman's Bent was first seen in 1979 (when Ian McKellen played the central character, Max), it uncovered a hitherto largely forgotten history of the extermination of homosexuals in the Nazi death-camps.
Since produced all over the world, the play receives its 25th anniversary production care of director Jenny Sealey and Graeae. It couldn't be more suitable for a company who also wear their difference with pride but who can still see there's a way to go when the makers of recently released film Inside I'm Dancing can't see the point of casting disabled actors.
When Graeae set out a quarter of a century ago, they did so not just to raise the curtain on awareness but to actually give disabled performers the chance to show that appearances can be deceiving. Hitler didn't agree. In 1939, he started the `mercy' killings to stamp out the mentally and physically disabled. Bent and Graeae, under Sealey, are testimonies to his failure. Anyone seeing Graeae's recent productions, such as Peeling will have been struck by the power of their voice and their distinctive, theatrical flair.
Bent then couldn't be a better choice. For at the heart of Sherman's story is a message so universal it transcends all barriers. Quite simply, it’s about owning up to whoever you are, focussed through Max (David Ellington), Jewish and gay, a man who would sell his soul for a deal and practically does so only to finally realise his true nature and pin the pink triangle to his yellow star before immolating himself.
In keeping with our times, Sealey balances this martyr complex with an emphasis on Sherman's dark humour and a bold, self-mocking acceptance. At the beginning, the six male actors come forward and wittily name their own `disabilities'.
In a play of two halves – 1930s `decadent' Berlin, later the unspeakable cruelties and humiliations of Dachau – Sealey's production, seamlessly incorporating spoken dialogue, doppeldanger signers, and wheelchair use, achieves a stark, stylised beauty. More, though, could have been made of Sherman's Beckett-like Dachau scenes, the monotony of its mind and body-breaking stone-carrying and Max and Rudi's extraordinary oral orgasm – a dramatic device much copied since.
But Ruth Finn's bare stage, with its open frontage resembling a pit but comprised of clothes, and Ian Scott's wonderful lighting illuminating moments of extraordinary pathos – Desmond Neysmith's cellist, Donal Toolan's thin, bony frame picked out as he changes clothes – rivet the eye and ultimately move the heart.
- Carole Woddis (reviewed at London’s Cochrane Theatre)