Celebrating queer love in Nazi Germany with award-winning play Bent
CREATED ON // Wednesday, 03 September 2014 Author // Stephen A. Russell
Stephen A. Russell talks to director Eddy Segal about Bent – the award winning play that recognises the pink triangles of Nazi Germany.
Historical accounts documenting the genocidal purge committed by the Nazis in the name of Aryan purity during the course of WWII focus largely on the six million Jewish victims tragically lost. It’s a lesser-known fact that as many as five million non-Jewish souls were also obliterated, including black people, the mentally and physically disabled and countless gay men who were rounded up and sent to the death camps, branded with pink triangles as a badge of shame.
Seventy-five years after the cataclysmic launch of WWII, and 35 years after its West End debut starring Ian McKellen, Cut Lunch Productions will stage Martin Sherman’s devastatingly powerful Bent, uncovering the hidden homosexual history of the holocaust. Directed by Eddy Segal, it will open at St Kilda’s Theatre Works September 3.
Beginning in Berlin on the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Adolph Hitler moved against left-wing politicians within the Nazi party as well as the Sturmabteilung paramilitary and other forces standing in the way of his consolidating power base, Bent hones in on indiscrete young gay couple Max (Christopher Brown) and Rudy (Zak Zavod) and the disastrous consequences that follow when the promiscuous Max brings home a handsome young brownshirt.
[Image] Mick Jagger as Greta in the 1997 film adaptation of Bent
Their lives become a nightmarish whirlwind as they flee Berlin but are captured and sent to the hellish Dachau concentration camp. It is in this desolate place of unimaginable horror that Max encounters the stoic Horst, played by Paul Blenheim, and an unlikely relationship is forged in the darkest of places.
“At its heart, it’s a great love story that takes place in one of the most unlikely settings, which makes it even more gripping,” Segal says. “It all plays out in an environment where very little is allowed. It’s quite intense. In a sense, it’s a coming of age story as well for a gay man learning to love who he is, and to be loved. That’s a human story. It’s timeless and beautiful.”
Alongside McKellen, Bent has attracted a raft of A-list stars across the years, including Richard Gere, Ralph Fiennes, Richard E. Grant and even rock star Mick Jagger as Greta the drag queen and cabaret star, who appeared alongside Clive Owen as Max in the 1997 film adaptation directed by Sean Matthias.
These stellar names are a testament to the power of Sherman’s achievement with the confronting yet ultimately incredibly rewarding play. “He’s such a great craftsman, he manages to create a story where the narrative unfolds so gradually that you never really know where it’s heading until you’re there,” Segal says. “It’s beautifully constructed and he peoples the play with these wonderfully vivid, passionate and flawed characters, who are so engaging.”
With names like that attached, is it daunting for him to tackle this material? “It’s not for me, but maybe for the actors,” Segal laughs. “We’ve got a great ensemble cast.”
There is scant documentation of the plight of gay men during this bleak period in world history and, as a consequence, there remains very little focus on these tragic events to this day, though Segal cites the documentary Paragraph 175, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and named after the provision in the German Criminal Code that criminalised homosexuality, as a good starting point.
When Bent debuted in 1979, it was ground breaking. “The awareness it raised on this subject matter was quite amazing,” he says. “After the second world war, homosexuality was still considered a criminal offence punishable by jail time. For a lot of people, the stories were never able to be told.”
Segal notes the incredible impact the piece has had on its audiences, even leading to real political change. A 1983 production staged in Israel played a role in the successful campaign to legalise homosexuality in that country. “That led to hundreds of thousands of gay people in Israel being able to openly celebrate their sexuality,” Segal says. “That’s a great example of the sort of power this play can have.”
With the fight for equality still raging, Segal says the message of love contained within Bent is as pertinent today as it was back in 1979. “We are living in a time, unfortunately, where prejudice and intolerance are still being carried out.”
Bent, Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda, September 3-13, 2014. theatreworks.org.au
[Top image] Actors Christopher Brown and Zak Zavod in Bent. Photo: Ben Wolstencroft