Whether a person becomes a theatergoer often depends on a crucial encounter with this dramatic art form — and a play that just opened at the Benisan Pit in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward is indubitably the stuff that makes theatergoers.
The play is Martin Sherman’s acclaimed “Bent,” which is being staged to mark the 10th anniversary of Theater Project Tokyo. The production sees renowned director Robert Allan Ackerman at the helm of a cast drawn from young actors who took part in a tpt workshop on Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” in October.
Interrupting his busy schedule to talk exclusively to The Japan Times, Brooklyn-born Ackerman explains that the production springs from the enthusiasm he felt on the final night of the tpt autumn workshop, when he suddenly declared: “Let’s do it!”
As he says: “After the seven-day workshop on ‘Glass Menagerie’ — which was for young actors aged between 22 to 32, some of whom had no experience, and some of whom has worked professionally in the theater — we decided to do a full production of ‘Bent’ together. We wanted to do something that we thought was strong and powerful and had some relevance to the political situation today.”
There was, he says, “a kind of inevitability about this production incarnating here in Japan with this cast at this moment.” An intriguing remark, considering that “Bent” — a drama focusing on intolerance, identity and sexuality — is set in Nazi Germany.
The play opens in 1934, when Germany’s newly elected racist and homophobic dictator, Adolf Hitler, stretched the country’s pre-existing law prohibiting homosexuality to jail thousands of gay men. Many of these men were then sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by triangles of pink material sewn onto their prison garb.
It is into this fearful new dawn that the play’s heroes, Max and Rudy, awake from the dreamy decadence of pre-Hitler Berlin. As homosexuals, and certain targets of state-sponsored persecution, they attempt to escape to Amsterdam, but just before they reach the Dutch border — and freedom — they are caught and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Dachau, in a leafy small town near Munich.
On the way to this end-of-the-world destination, however, they meet another pink-triangle prisoner, Horst, who advises Max not to protest about the Gestapo’s torture of Rudy, as to do so would doom the couple. Instead, Horst counsels, the intelligent course is to concentrate on surviving each day, in the hope of a better future. Through the nightmare of camp life, Horst urges Max to not lose himself, to hang onto his human dignity and to retain love because without that all is lost.
When it premiered in London’s West End in 1979, “Bent” was a sensation, as it dealt in such a positive way with the then still sensitive subject of homosexuality. Though some conservative commentators raged, “Bent” was acclaimed by critics and drew standing ovations every night. Indeed, when the National Theatre in London selected its best 100 plays of the century as part of its “NT2000” millennium project, “Bent” was chosen to represent 1979.
After its debut London run, “Bent” transferred to Broadway and the New Apollo Theater, where it was directed by Ackerman with Richard Gere in the central role of Max. There, too, it was both acclaimed and controversial — the first serious “gay” play in Broadway’s quite conservative history.
The Benisan Pit may be a far cry from Broadway, but Ackerman explained that his theatrical interest in Japan began when he saw Yukio Ninagawa’s “Medea” in New York in 1986 and his “Macbeth” in London the following year. Shortly after, while working in London, he was asked by a Japanese agency to direct in Japan.
“Surprisingly, when I came to Japan to start working with Japanese people from the Shochiku Company around the bubble time, I found I shared so much of their sensibility,” he says. “It was a very spiritual moment for me, because they had the same concerns for theater as I did, and they had the same passion as I had for the theater. Now, I share more in common with tpt people — emotionally, spiritually and about the theater — than I do in my own country.
“We all felt we wanted to do something that would really have power at this time. ‘Bent’ seemed perfect, because it’s a very powerful play and a political play as well. ‘Bent’ is about discrimination and intolerance, and it is really a plea for a more tolerant society set at the beginning of the Holocaust, but it seemed to be very relevant today.
“The young people performing this play are the generation that will supposedly be inheriting the world we are living in right now, and that world is, sadly, suffering from the repercussions of prejudice, of anger, of discrimination, of hatred that runs along racial lines, national lines and religious lines. ‘Bent’ is as strong a play as I know that speaks against all the horrors that come along with discrimination, hatred and crimes of an unspeakable nature committed against people simply for being who they are.
“These are very important issues to be talking about right now, when there’s so much racial profiling going on and people are being killed all over the world for no other reason than their racial or national background.”
At this point, while saying he felt “everything about this production was different,” and that anyone who saw “Bent” on Broadway would be seeing a very different production here — “because, for one thing, I am 20 years older” — Ackerman declared his belief that “theater is a reflection of society, and hopefully it can speak of change and can present new values to the people.
“For example, I think ‘Bent’ talks about finding an identity, a personal identity, something inside of oneself that’s very private. It speaks about ‘who you are’ rather than ‘what you are’ in terms of how much money you make or what your position in society might be. It really talks about coming to terms with who you are.
“I think that in any political or social climate where people are forced to change their value system, they have to start by looking at themselves, and exploring who they are and what they want in terms of their own spiritual and emotional needs.
“Going to the theater and watching that exploration on stage can hopefully give you the inspiration to do that in your own life.”
Ackerman hammers home this view in the press release that accompanies the new production, which reads: “Nowadays, political suppression or threats of terrorism are lurking everywhere. So ‘Bent’ is a sincere appeal from us, the people of today; it is a testimony of humans’ indomitable courage. From the Holocaust to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Sept. 11, and to the recent terrorism in Bali, we continue to appeal for tolerance, change, freedom and love, and we do so before it’s too late — too late for the survival of the planet.”
With war in Iraq seemingly imminent, and Japan’s identity as a global example of state pacifism under constant threat, there may be no more appropriate time for this play to be opening in Tokyo.
What’s more, because another company currently owns the rights to stage “Bent,” tpt could not mount a commercial production — i.e. charge for tickets. The group is, therefore, performing for free — a decision that greatly impressed Ackerman. “It’s a very brave and wonderful thing that tpt chose to do,” he says. “They felt that committed to the idea of doing it — and doing it now.”
So if you are not already a theatergoer, could there be a better opportunity to have your formative theatrical experience than this? It’s no less than the (free) chance of a lifetime.