Savage is still a work in progress. It is to be hoped that on the back of this absorbing and moving initial production a transfer can be arranged to a space where it can develop its full expressive potential, and where there will be scope to develop the set and design concept further.
The ingenious inhumanity of the Nazi regime in Europe towards gay people is not a new theme: Bent and many plays that flowed from its example have explored this territory thoroughly. Likewise, the collaboration, whether enforced or willing, between prisoners and their German captors, and even the dubious border between collaboration and resistance have found many creative expressions, from Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter onwards. Claudio Macor’s new play seeks to bring all these themes together freshly but in doing so he has the benefit also of a framework provided by a historical narrative only recently unearthed from the occupation of Denmark in World War Two.
Two narrative lines are developed and intertwined, both rooted in fact. Dr Carl Peter Vaernet is a Copenhagen GP who seizes an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the German occupiers by proposing a ‘cure’ for homosexuality based on injections of testosterone. He has the opportunity to experiment on Nikolai Bergson (Alexander Huetson), who has been arrested for public intimacy with his partner Zack Travis (Nic Kyle). The latter escapes such a fate because he is an American diplomat.
Dr Vaernet’s nurse and assistant, Ilse Paulsen (Emily Lynne) takes pity on the debilitated Nikolai and cares for him after his release, while Zac tries to secure their reunion. Intercut ironically with this story are scenes from the unusual relationship between General von Aechelman, (Bradley Clarkson) who has licenced the experiments, and Georg Jensen, (Lee Knight), a gay night-club performer en travestie. Their interchanges, some of the best in the script, unsparingly expose the hypocritical contradictions of the closet, and the sado-masochistic aspects of such enforced intimacies.
The play provides a compelling evening in the theatre with some very fine performances within a well-integrated cast. We are made to think hard about some difficult issues of guilt and responsibility and the consequences of discrimination, whether overt or discreet. We are also provided with eloquent examples of the best and worst of human capabilities in wartime. Where Macor really scores is in finding a dramatic purpose to legitimate and control the depiction of some fairly horrifying actions (in a way that, say, Edward Bond’s recent and sometimes gratuitous play, Dea, does not). There are emotional and political truths in abundance here, but it is left to the audience to sift through them, as it should be, without didactic pressure.
There are no real weaknesses in this excellent cast and some richly detailed performances of real distinction. As Nikolai, Huetson has to travel a huge emotional and physical journey, and it is one that is finely calibrated all the way. His is a study that reminds you of Hemingway’s definition of courage as ‘grace under pressure’, as his character comes to terms with the destruction of salient features of his identity and then learns to re-engage with the world. He could be given more material with which to build his character at the start, but what he does with it commands admiration, as much in the moments of quietly crumpling despair – such as the telephone call that ends Act One – as in the grander moments of conflict and passion.
He is well matched by Kyle whose initial naïveté, and later anger and determination to trace his lost partner are well realised and projected.
The other key relationship is equally well portrayed. As the increasingly alcoholic and conflicted German General, Clarkson veers plausibly between bellicose over-confidence and wheedling insecurity as he journeys towards disintegration. This meshes well with Knight’s contained, pitying contempt and determination to preserve his integrity against the odds. We also see him perform two of his drag acts which are neatly calibrated to be knowing and world-weary acts of resistance in the face of the most intense provocation.
Gary Fannin’s Dr Vaernet scored through containment: his calculatedly cool medic, full of surface rationality, was all the more alarming through his ordinariness – Hannah Arendt’s ‘the banality of evil’ came to mind. Lynne’s warm hearted Nurse Ilse provided an excellent counterpoint, and crucially she melted slowly, so that when her commitment to Nicolai’s cause came, it was all the more powerful. She also sang delightfully, and it is to be hoped that she will soon get a chance to showcase her vocal talents further in musical theatre on this side of the Atlantic.
Among the smaller roles, Chris Hines’ portrayal of a blustering and then sinister British officer stood out as a reminder that some of the responsibility for the soft-pedalling on Nazi war crimes rests with the liberators, as much as with the oppressors. And finally, Kristian Simeonov distinguishes well between the four tiny roles he has, and dances gracefully at the start of the show.
There are some difficulties, though. Firstly, for all the advantages of its central location, this venue is simply too tiny, hot, noisy and awkwardly shaped even for low-budget productions with small casts. When a cast of eight has to take a curtain-call on a diagonal then you know you have problems.
Several key sightlines in the audience were blocked, and in a play where there is considerable onstage violence, the actors often seemed to operate under a sense of constraint and inhibited movement. This meant that the quieter, more intimate scenes often carried more conviction. In a different location this balance would probably be corrected to advantage.
More seriously there are also some problems of balance in the writing that need to be addressed. While the evening is long enough as things stand, there are several points where emphases could be adjusted. For example, we know rather too little of Nikolai and Zack and care too little for them as people in their own right before they become pawns and simply acted upon and submerged in the larger process of the war. This places a great burden of interpretation on the actors that could be addressed given some further back-story – as happens, for instance, in the first act of Bent.
In parallel, in the crucial final scene between the General and Georg it is asking rather too much to expect the actors to signal the elapse of four years and the panic and chaos of the imminent collapse of the Nazi regime. It is hard to do justice, in other words to the rich potential of both of these stories at the same time, and at present they slightly inhibit each other, like two equally strong trees planted too closely together.
This play is still work in progress. It is to be hoped that on the back of this absorbing and moving initial production a transfer can be arranged to a space where it can develop its full expressive potential, and where there will be scope to develop the set and design concept further.