Pros: The acting is very impressive.
Cons: The show is overlong, and sharper focus on the true aspects of the play is needed.
The persecution, imprisonment and experimentation upon homosexual men during the Second World War in Europe is little documented in the arts, the atrocities of the Holocaust usually being the primary emphasis. Writer and director Claudio Macor, having discovered the almost unknown true story of Nazi war criminal Dr Carl Peter Vaernet, has chosen to spotlight his attempts to ‘cure’ homosexuality with support from the Third Reich. What results is Savage, a play that uses fictional relationships to highlight Vaernet’s cruel aims.
It’s 1940; Denmark has just been occupied by the Nazis, and we are introduced to lovers Nikolai (Alexander Huetson) and Zack (Nic Kyle). The venue is the Corner Light Club, home to drag queen and club owner Georg Jensen (Lee Knight), who puts in a majestic and breathy performance, albeit slightly off key. Upon hearing that the club is sadly to close its doors for good, the happy couple steal a kiss in the night air, which will be their downfall. Authorities brutally arrest Nikolai and he falls into the hands of Dr Vaernet, where he is subjected to a regime of injections with the ‘cure’, much to the horror of assisting nurse Ilse (Emily Lynne). Dr Vaernet (Gary Fanin) is portrayed as very ambitious and cold to the suffering of those he is experimenting on, resolute in his belief that homosexuality is a disease which should be pitied and stamped out in order for society to continue. His methods are overseen by Obergruppenführer Heinrich Von Aechelman (Bradley Clarkson), who behind his Nazi salutes has a controlling side of a very different nature. Ultimately the theme is the unpunished crime, with both Von Aechelman and Dr Vaernet emerging relatively unscathed.
The acting in this production is top notch: the relationship between Nicolai and Zack feels genuine, as does the agonising panic from Zack as he conveys to Nikolai upon their reunion how he felt when he couldn’t find him. Clarkson and Knight as Von Aechelman and Jensen put great emphasis on the artifice of their togetherness, providing a stark contrast to their loving counterparts. I was also very impressed by Clarkson’s unravelling of Von Aechelman as the war progressed, from impeccable soldier to dishevelled and frightened, desperate to be touched before the inevitable end.
At two hours, the show, having its world premiere at Above the Arts, is a touch overlong. I also felt that more emphasis on the doctor himself, as the true element behind the story, might have benefitted the play. A childhood anecdote does provide some background, but compared to the development of the other characters Vaernet seems stunted, even though perhaps it is his part of the story that requires the greatest growth.
Above the Arts is a tiny, stuffy space, but I felt suitably transported by the set, made up of a few simple reversible panels. A lot of Savage is about the unseen, the trauma of the experimentation, and how it can be dealt with in the present context. A tribute at the start by Macor to the victims of Orlando suggests that Savage is to be viewed as relevant, as a reminder that such practises still exist in the world today. In other words, the past is not always just the past.
Written and Directed By: Claudio Macor
Producer: Andrea Leoncini
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Booking Link: https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/savage/
Booking Until: 23 July 2016