The hero appears in a robe, swooning and swaying to an operatic soprano. Where are we, in a stage version of Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia”? Hardly. Two decades before Hollywood’s nervous ’90s, Martin Sherman’s impassioned 1979 drama “Bent” pulled no punches in its revelatory exploration of gay oppression and survival. What it didn’t do was play the opera card. Daniel Kramer’s arresting new staging stops short of singing, but it does open with Alan Cumming reveling in Puccini and, figuratively, for much of the night it cleaves to the scale of opera. Directors of previous British productions have found that unnecessary for the play. This revival makes it look as though they were right.
There have always been definite cracks to paper over in Sherman’s first act set in mid-1930s Germany. In the apartment he shares with his lover Rudy (Kevin Trainor), wheeler-dealer Max (Cumming) has had a night of heedless lust with Wolf, an SS officer. Unbeknownst to them, this is the morning after Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, the true episode where gay-friendly Ernst Roehm has been killed. The SS burst in and murder Wolf so, in a kind of nightmare variant on Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in “Some Like It Hot,” these two naive, apolitical queens are forced to go on the run.
The ensuing scenes find them in various hiding places including the drag club presided over by Richard Bremmer’s magnificently vicious Greta — looking and sounding for all the world like a 90-year-old, down-at-heel Ute Lemper. Later, Max risks plain sight by meeting his discreetly gay uncle Freddie (an exquisitely calibrated perf from Hugh Ross).
Kramer and his designer Robin Don certainly solve the episodic nature of the writing. Transitions between scenes are quite literally orchestrated — the powerful sound score using everything from violent industrial screeches to a sustained outpouring of Wagner — to maximum dramatic effect. Each minimal setting is successively stripped back by highly choreographed Nazi officers crowing and leaping with glee at their desecration as they toss furniture and props down the sides of the plinth-like gray stage.
The staging reaches a peak with Rudy and Max’s capture. Smoke shoots out downstage as, upstage, Paul Anderson’s fierce backlighting floods through the cracks of a cattle truck lowered onto the set. The noise settles to the rattle of a train and suddenly everyone is being transported to Dachau.
Yet all this bravura is in danger of dwarfing the text. And with the pitch already raised, the actors have to top it, often to a level of dangerous exaggeration. The Nazis in this production cartoonishly scream every line. They would appear much more threatening by quietly wielding their immense power.
On board the train, in order to stay alive, Max agrees to the officers’ demands that he not only deny his sexuality but beat his lover to death. It’s the production’s most upsetting and effective scene, with Cumming losing himself to the script’s raw emotion.
Elsewhere, however, although the actor’s sincerity is never in doubt, he’s led into the trap of overemoting. He strenuously put himself through the wringer, but more restraint would pull auds toward him so as to feel the character’s pain, rather than admiring the actor’s effort.
In several moments of self-loathing he cries, which means that although we empathize, we are unlikely to be crying too. One of the key themes of the play is Max’s journey toward emotional self-acceptance. For that to work, he should only be properly in touch with his emotions at the very end of the play, not at staging posts along the way.
Max’s personal trajectory takes places over the second act, set outdoors at the camp where he and fellow gay inmate Horst (Chris New) have to carry out the mind-crushing task of moving rocks back and forth for 12 hours a day. It’s here that Max gets his political and personal education. With a quietly powerful voice, the unusually direct New — a recent Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate — makes an impressive debut as Horst, the ex-nurse who initially loathes but grows to love Max.
Yet he too suffers from Kramer pushing so hard that the monotony and pain of the two men’s lives is barely evoked. Even more confusingly, the director is so intent on underlining the message of the play that he contradicts the script. The whole second act is about the two men not allowed to touch or communicate with each other for fear of death. Yet barely a conversation goes by without them looking directly at one another.
The major exception to this is the famous scene where, standing side by side without touching themselves or each other, they achieve orgasm. That audacious scene, which forces auds to confront and understand the powerful importance of sex within sexuality, remains pole-axing. But that mutual climax should not be, as it is here, the climax of the play.
Drama, unlike comedy, aspires to the condition of silence. Sherman’s second act does still keep its audience rapt. If Kramer had only let the play breathe it would have been even more powerful.