The reason why Martin Sherman's impassioned drama "Bent" has been seen in over fifty countries since its 1979 premiere is simple: it pulls none of its considerable punches. Back then, this cross between a politicised horror story and the triumph of love, not only made a supremely visceral case for sexuality to be up alongside racial and feminist identity politics, it also sprang gay sexuality from the closet onto centre-stage. A quarter of a century later, is there really a case for its revival?
Judging by openly homophobic reviews in the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, the answer is a defiant yes. Yet although Daniel Kramer's new production is certainly arresting, at times its flamboyance pushes the play to a level of melodrama that is self-defeating.
The play is at its weakest in the expository first act where we follow naively apolitical wheeler-dealer Max (Alan Cumming) and his lover Rudy on the run in Thirties Germany after a night of heedless lust with an SS officer. Sherman's episodic scenes build an increasingly claustrophobic picture of the Nazis increasing stranglehold until the two men are captured where, en route to Dachau, Max is forced to kill his lover.
In this bravura staging, transitions between scenes are orchestrated to maximum effect with a sound score harnessing everything from industrial screeches to a sustained outpouring of Wagner. An indication of the pitch of the production is the fact that each set is stripped by highly choreographed Nazis crowing and leaping with glee at their desecration. The intention, clearly, is to show them as being as cartoonish as many believed them to be. However, that approach - and the fact that these Nazis invariably scream their lines - barely allows us to feel their terrifying power. They would appear far more malevolent by quietly wielding total authority.
There's no denying the sincerity of Ala Cumming's performance. He is, however, miscast. Cumming's work is virtuosic, that of a soloist performing brilliantly. Here that technique leads him into the trap of over-emoting and when actors display all their emotions, audiences tend to admire rather than feel them for themselves. The play's strength is its marrying of emotional and political acceptance, a slow and difficult journey for self-loathing hedonist Max. But Cumming weakens the drama by showing Max crying and being in touch with emotions from far too early in the text.
Cumming and Kramer should take a leaf from the book of Chris New, whose marvellously unsentimental Horst leads Max into self-acceptance. New, freshly graduated the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) is quietly spoken, superbly focused and unusually direct. There's a simplicity to his performance, which acts almost as a rebuke to the excess surrounding him. Once Cumming is teamed with him, the better-written second half begins to yields up its power.
In the play's most audacious scene, the two men stand apart not touching yet give each other a secret but defiant sexual climax. It's ironic in a play with so forceful a subject; it's the restraint of that scene that makes it work. Would that Kramer had followed that lead. Cumulatively, his production has undeniable power, but it should be devastating.