BENT (1979)

Written by Martin Sherman

Directed by Robert Chetwyn

Ian McKellen in the role of Max

Royal Court and Criterion, London

3 May 1979

Society of West End Theatres (SWET) - Best Actor

Comments and Reviews

After the first performances at the Royal Court Theatre beginning on 3 May 1979, this production transferred to the Criterion on 4 July 1979. Bent has since been seen in over 40 countries and translated into at least 21 different languages.

"Some plays should be blind dates. So if you don't yet know the big surprise of Martin Sherman's Bent, but still propose to visit the Court, you should sit out the next few paragraphs, starting right here. It begins, you see, as if it was going to be just another clubby comedy of modern homosexual life, glancingly indebted to The Boys in the Band. The dressing gowns, the dowdy furniture, the hangovers, the bitchy jokes, the complaints ('I know pain is very chic now, but I don't like it') all suggest that we're doomed to spend our evening in some bachelor hideaway in Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, or the unfashionable end of Ladbroke Grove. But then comes the shock. A knock at the door; some indolent banter at the expense of the importunate landlord everyone presumes to be lurking outside; and in burst a couple of SS men, who proceed to cut the throat of the lissom blond cupid the master of the house brought home last night. This is Berlin W4, and the long knives are out. Rohm is dead, the SA is being systematically massacred. To touch another man in the way of friendship is to risk being sterilised, castrated, imprisoned, or murdered.

The purpose of Mr Sherman's theatrical surprise is, of course, to emphasise to his audiences that these things happened in our time and our world. While Gielgud and Olivier were alternating Romeo and Mercutio in London, men were having pink triangles compulsorily sewn on to their lapels in Prussia and Westphalia. In the year Simon Gray was born, and John Osborne blew out the candles on his sixth birthday cake, the first of an estimated half-million homosexuals were being shunted off to eventual annihilation in the concentration camps. There are times when Mr Sherman's attempts to particularise his horrors seem lurid and extravagant: the gay man forced to have sex with the corpse of a 13-year-old girl; the Nazi ogre rubbing his cheek after a particularly capricious murder and indignantly snarling, 'He scratched me'. Yet the magnitude of the atrocity tends, justly or unjustly, to reduce such complaints to the niggling niceties of a sheltered mind. How can a critic presume to accuse hell of being melodramatic? Or anything that occurred in or around Dachau of being improbable? 'This isn't happening.' echoes Ian McKellen's whey-faced Max as he listens to some of the most horrific screams I've heard in any theatre; but the weight of the evidence is against him.

Mr Sherman's aim isn't only to disinter an evil often swamped in our memories by the quantitively still greater wrong done the Jews: it's also to strike a blow for the human, and especially the homosexual, spirit in extremis. The history of his Max is, at least until the end, unsentimentally conceived and morally contradictory. He escapes from subterranean Berlin into the Wagnerian forests with a male dancer in tow, refuses a ticket to safety in Holland because there isn't a second one for this friend, yet ends up compliantly beating him to death on the cattle train to Dachau. Once there, he wangles himself a yellow star because he thinks the Jews a privileged class, and ekes out his working days carrying rocks from point A to point B and back again. When his new friend, a proclaimed homosexual named Horst, is offhandedly slaughtered by a scarred sadist, he leaps after him into the lime-pit, puts on his overcoat, and proceeds rather literally to 'come out'. Emblazoned at last with the pink triangle, he flings himself backwards on to an electric fence, and burns.

It is always hard to accept someone's transformation from mere man into crusading symbol; and men don't come much merer than the spoiled slyboots Mr McKellen presents us in the first scene. Yet his is a steadily darkening and (I think) deepening performance, one that communicates a sticky, clammy horror at the evils multiplying outside and, almost worse, festering within. Not many actors could plausibly confess to necrophilia with a minor. Nor could many cope with the demands of Mr Sherman's trickiest scene, the one in which Tom Bell's scrawny, fistula-faced Horst and McKellen's Max bring one another to orgasm by the simple ruse of standing to attention and using their verbal imaginations. That the audience spontaneously applauded this potentially ludicrous but actually very touching encounter says much for the concentration and power of both actors, as it does for Mr Sherman's writing, which is overdependent on mannered repetitions but never reckless with reality. The result of their combined efforts still isn't quite the persuasive advertisement for gay pride they may have hoped, but it is something not to be despised, a V-sign defiantly flourished at all forms of oppression." — Benedict Nightingale, The New Statesman 11 May 1979


Banner photo: Ian McKellen (Max) and Tom Bell (Horst) meeting in Dachau


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