>bent by toy factory theatre ensemble

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 8 aug 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: toy factory at the attic
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>merely bent not broken

Martin Sherman's BENT is a script of aching beauty, as much the history of Nazi persecution of homosexuals during World War II as it is of one man realising the importance of speaking the name of love especially when it has been silenced - and how that finally frees him even as it destroys him. There are moments in the script which literally demand you turn away: Max is forced to torture his lover, Rudy, to escape his own persecution and later, he has to watch as Horst, his only friend in the concentration camp is commanded to walk into an electric fence. These violate every sense of how we love. These violate every sense of what love means to us. And that is why when, at the end of the play, after all that Max has done to deny his love for Rudy and Horst to stay alive, he puts on Horst's uniform with the damning pink triangle and takes his own life, it is so much more than a political statement of truth - it reminds us of why we love. And why we must never stop.

It is at this moment that the human spirit - Max's and ours - so utterly broken, is restored. The pay-off is incredible.

The problem with Toy Factory's version of BENT is that while it is wholly adequate in bringing the script to life on stage and it is indeed often disturbing, it is never truly devastating. And yet a script like this demands that: it should make you want to walk out of the theatre. There is really little point in doing the play otherwise. It is like staging a rip-roaring French farce and deciding to make it only mildly amusing.

And frankly, this has been a sore point with Toy Factory's recent run of plays under director Beatrice Chia. They are always decently-produced and directed and it is great for local audiences to be given the rare opportunity to watch such works but the company seems to believe that the mere fact of putting these plays on justifies them. It is tantamount to giving a hungry child a piece of badly-burnt bread. Thanks but no thanks.

>>'The company seems to believe that the mere fact of putting these plays on justifies them'

Chia seems happy to place the actors on stage, come up with a few neat visual concepts and then let the story simply unfold without actors or director ever really getting to the heart of the play. But 'Beautiful Thing' is more than just a fairytale romance. Its working class landscape is as much a character as Jamie and Ste. It is the same for the urban London milieu in 'Shopping And Fucking'. There is a whole subtext of culture and context that Chia dismisses when she transplants these scripts to the local stage.

Here we have Mark Richmond and Lim Yu Beng doing creditable jobs as Max and Horst but again I find myself strangely unmoved as Richmond holds a dead Horst in his arms, tears streaming down the face. Neither actor has truly connected with the script, each other or the history behind the work. They certainly don't have the chemistry of lovers; barely the chemistry of friends. They don't even share the kinship of football players who have just scored a goal. It bothers me no end that the crucial scene when the two men soothe each other through words alone left me unmoved. When Horst loses his life to the electric fence and then Max does the same, I was paying as much attention to the play as I was to the bit of cat hair I had found on my t-shirt.

The play also distracts with Chia choosing to tease out more slapstick comedy from the script than it intends, leading Lim to dip inconsistently and bizarrely into camp, and what drama surfaces is often suffocated under layer upon layer of melodramatic lighting and music. And while the motif of strings and webs is visually interesting, it is also heavy-handed.

There is an inspired turn by Gani Abdul Karim as nightclub owner Greta in an extended Berlin club scene that captures the mood and time brilliantly and Chua En Lai as dancer Rudy, while stumbling with the stream of consciousness effect that he is supposed to produce when he speaks, every so often suddenly breaks your heart with a single look, the way he turns his head, his voice as he sings. And the script remains such a thing of beauty that this production remains unmissable. But if you can, rent out the film.

Or just read the script. And appreciate the work not only as a piece of theatre but one that speaks truly to all of us who in a different world would have had to wear triangles or stars.

A final mention has to be made about the venue, Toy Factory's new space at Tanjong Pagar. What can I say, call me churlish, call me petty, it's truly horrible. Its long rectangular shape might be suitable for fashion shows and actually proves ideal for the second half of BENT when Max and Horst are trapped in the concentration camp and have to walk up and down carrying rocks, but for the first half, limited views and odd blocking frustrate. Also, having get up to the fourth floor via a lift that is practically hanging from a rubber band and cannot hold the eleven people it claims to be able to, is impractical and probably led to the play starting fifteen minutes later than it should have. And did I mention that the ground floor waiting area for the lift is not air-conditioned and the size of a small handbag? And that I had to wait three rounds to get into the lift? Toy Factory, ask whoever gave you the space for a refund!