first night

Bent

Jacqui Duan kicks of the Durham Festival of the Arts reviewing with Ethrael Theatre's production of 'Bent'

 

Martin Sherman’s Bent is a wonderfully fresh and ambitious creation, which has awed and stunned its audience. Exploring the nature of forbidden love between two men trapped in the harsh confines of a concentration camp in World War II, the play manages to deftly walk the line between gravity and comedy, showcasing some of the finest acting in Durham.

 

Bent is a play, which challenges the expectations and stereotypes of its genre and subject matter. It opens with a deceptively lighthearted (albeit painfully familiar) scene, played smoothly out by a scantily clad Hugh Train and Alex Colville. Consisting of a hangover, a mysterious bruise and a stranger from the night before, the sudden transition from laughter to fear is jarring, announced by a gunshot and a death. There were a few lengthy and too frequent scene changes that interrupted the flow of the play, so that the relationship between Max and Rudy appeared a little awkward and cliché, a stereotypical portrayal of romance consisting of the doting partner and his lackadaisical counterpart, who reconciles with song in a forest while awaiting their uncertain fate. But, when put in perspective of Act Two, the first act appears as a deliberate set up, playing the role of a flashback as in film, more informational in its function and cleverly acts as a juxtaposition to the stark harshness of the second half.

 

The director Lauren Hitchman must be commended in the clever manipulation setting, of sound and silence and of movement and stillness, particularly in the second act. The wire fence looms ominously in the background, the blow of a whistle signals respite, a cough preludes tragedy and a simple sweep of the left eyebrow becomes the symbol for love. The continuous to-ing and fro-ing helped accentuate the traits of each character; Comerford was as solid and convincing an actor as the rocks he carried, and the moral struggles of Train’s Max were effectively portrayed in the pendulum-like movement. Silence and separation becomes the space in which love grows, and the continuous juxtaposition of emotional outburst with physical stillness makes the play all the more poignant and steers it away from the melodramatic.

 

The real star of the show is not merely Train’s portrayal of the desperate Max, but really he and Comerford’s portrayal of Max and Horst’s relationship. Utterly convincing and heartfelt, with a simplicity that recalls Marcel Puig’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman, it would be difficult to find one audience member who was not completely touched by their story last night. They struck a perfect balance, neither character out-shadowing the other but working together in a cohesive performance that would not looked out of place in London’s West End. Train manages to pull together the defiant ending without going over the top, and delivers the play’s powerful message, emphasised by its historical backdrop, which is simply that love should be free and equal.

 

For a play containing material as grave and weighty as Bent, it managed to strike a good harmony between the cleverly scripted pockets of comedy and its desolate trajectory. Martin Sherman’s dialogue was entertaining, heartfelt and avoided most clichés, proving that student theatre is definitely capable of tackling such heavy subject matter. Fresh and delightfully unexpected, Bent has been a definitely highlight of the Durham Festival of Arts.

5 June 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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