Making a spectacle of man’s inhumanity to man

by Nobuko Tanaka

“Bent” is one of the outstanding theatrical creations of the 20th century. Ostensibly about the persecution of homosexuals and Jews under Hitler’s dictatorship, what the play really addresses is the power — in even the most disempowered circumstances — of the individual and of love.

Written by London-based American Martin Sherman, “Bent” has been staged in more than 45 countries since the London premiere in 1979. Just 12 months ago, with Bush and Blair beating their war drums, the new-year production of “Bent” by Theatre Project Tokyo (tpt) at its small, atmospheric Benisan Pit home made an unforgettable impression (see The Japan Times, Jan. 1, 2003). Having developed from a tpt workshop for young actors under renowned American director Robert Allan Ackerman, that production achieved an extraordinary level of tenderness and tension.

And so here we are now; the invasion of Iraq is over and done, if not won; and “Bent” is back. This time it’s a major new “West End” production by Parco Theater, directed by Katsuhide Suzuki at the company’s big Shibuya home. The play opens in a Berlin apartment in 1934, where the hero, Max (Kippei Shiina), and his gay lover, Rudi (Sosuke Takaoka) lead a cozy existence even though in the world outside the Nazis have seized power. That harsh reality breaks in, however, when their apartment is raided — and though they escape, a couple of years later they are rounded up and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

On the way there, Rudi is singled out by the SS and beaten to a pulp. As he lies there, Max is ordered to finish him off or be killed himself. Counseled by another gay prisoner, Horst (Kenichi Endo), to do so rather than die in vain, he puts the final boot in. For doing this — and also raping a young girl to demonstrate his “healthy” male sexuality — he is “rewarded” by being recategorized as a Jew rather than a homosexual — so possibly awarding him a little more time.

In the second act, we find Max and Horst in Dachau forced at gunpoint to labor in silence from dawn to dusk, carrying huge rocks from one pile to another then back again. Though this cruel and pointless servitude is designed to break their will, instead we witness their human spirit triumph as small acts of kindness between them foster a love that keeps the pair going — until the final, stunning climax.

So how does this Parco production of “Bent” measure up to tpt’s triumphant staging? The look is very different, for starters. Whereas the Berlin apartment in tpt’s production was chintzy and sumptuous, Parco’s is minimalist and functional, creating an atmosphere quite at odds with the unknowing idyll of the lovey-dovey couple living there. It is as if Suzuki — who spends a lot of his time writing stylish scripts for movies, theater and TV — couldn’t get to grips with Parco’s larger venue.

One outstanding point in the production, however, comes in a scene when Max and Rudi are on the run and go to a club run by their female-impersonator friend Greta (Eisuke Sasai). There, Greta stages a spectacular, campy song-and-dance show with flashing lights, mirror balls and men in drag, using Parco’s big space to the full.

Sadly, this momentum doesn’t continue into the crucial second act. In tpt’s production, the first act’s tension and sensitivity modulated into a desolate period of metronomic movements — during which Max and Horst (on pain of execution for even making eye contact) in whispers and unspoken communication form a bond of love that proves essential to their survival. Unfortunately, Parco’s “Bent” so lacks tension of any sort that the heroes’ emotional journey to this point of intimacy lacks credibility. In particular, this fatally undermines the crucial scene in which Max and Horst make love in their imaginations, through half-whispers, despite standing apart, looking straight ahead under the guns of their captors.

Even that, though, pales compared with the play’s biggest flaw, which is reserved for the stunning climax that should offer its ultimate epiphany. In this scene, as Sherman wrote it, Max throws himself into the camp’s electric fence. It is not the suicide of a broken man, but a defiant demonstration of the triumph of his will — and love. Instead, what we get at Parco is a Max who thinks about doing this — but then turns away, opting to continue his quiet, tortured life.

Suzuki offers an explanation in the program: “[Max is] a symbol of those people today who can neither feel nor give love, and who regard others more as objects than people.” Well, that’s one interpretation, certainly. But if it truly is Suzuki’s view, then it beggars belief why he chose to stage “Bent,” only to castrate it.

“Bent” runs till Feb. 1 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya; tickets 7,500 yen. For more information, or to book, call (03) 3477-5858 or visit www.parco-city.co.jp/play

Yukio Ninagawa has zoomed into 2004 on full power with “Titus Andronicus” at his home base of Sai-no-Kuni Saitama Arts Center, where he has vowed to stage all Shakespeare’s plays.

One of the Bard’s early works, this bloody, sensational drama is one of his most infrequently staged, and for Ninagawa it is a first. His long experience shines through, however, as he pares down this tale set in Ancient Rome to its core of serial revenge between the Roman general Titus Andronicus (Kotaro Yoshida) and Tamora, the conquered Queen of the Goths (Rei Asami), so rendering it wonderfully accessible, even to the most historically challenged.

As deceit, rape, mutilation and brutal murder are inflicted with astonishing fervor and variety on both families in succession, the audience is assailed with no fewer than 13 fatalities from the cast of 25 — including the climax, when Titus tricks Tamora into eating a pie containing the flesh of her two sons.

Eschewing the temptation to splatter the entire theater with ketchup, though, Ninagawa imaginatively recounts this story in a way that highlights its human interest, going easy on the cruelty and gore. This he achieves, for example, by the use of red cloths to represent pools of blood, and red ribbons and strings for bleeding, while severed limbs and heads and also dead bodies are depicted by transparent plastic models.

Even before all this begins, Ninagawa marvelously diverts the audience’s attentions away from the tabloid shock-horror of the play by having the actors and backstage staff, and even himself, move around the stage until the last second, pretending to be in rehearsal.

The result of this classically Brechtian technique is to heighten the audience’s expectation, making it easier for them to plunge fully into the unfamiliar Roman world. As well, it made clear to all that what would follow was fiction, not some history lesson to be attended to dutifully.

By shaving off all the play’s diversionary excess, Ninagawa constructed a streamlined “Titus.” He largely excluded historical details by, for example, dressing his Romans in plain white and garbing the set’s high walls in white, onto which — in a stroke of theatrical magic — projections cast black-and-white images of deep woods during the disturbing scene of the rape of Titus’ daughter by Tamora’s sons.

This directorial magic brought to the surface a universal significance usually lost in the red mist of “Titus.” Consequently, the mind easily made links, for example, to the cycle of violence in the Middle East — or, indeed, to a superpower gone to war, some believe, to eliminate a dictator who once tried to have its leader’s father killed.

With Asami at the peak of her powers and Yoshida — looking every bit the general — superbly portraying a Titus who is more a loyal father than bloody tyrant, Ninagawa has redefined “Titus Andronicus.”