The last time I found myself in the Arts Theatre’s Upstairs, I was part of the bizarre journey that was Follow the Faun: an immersive dance experience which cannot, despite my efforts, be summed up in mere words. The room was ideal for that extravaganza, which demanded its audience to (amongst other things) rave, thrust, and prance.
This previous escapade had left a distinct impression on me and on the way I viewed this space. It was odd returning to the place, and finding a seat for me to settle on and watch some serious theatre. For though SAVAGE has its moments of choreographed movement, we as an audience are just spectators. The play wants us to bear witness: to hear of an often forgotten Nazi war criminal; and it’s not a story with a joyful ending.
I can’t help but wonder if this was the best venue for the piece. The play explored a series of intimate relationships which merited their own distinct stage, providing distance between the players and the audience so that we may better observe the intricacies of the bonds between the characters . Instead, we felt a bit cramped, infiltrating the action with our proximity . Though I imagine this seating plan works immensely well for certain productions, this claustrophobia did not serve to intensify the emotions acted before us, but may instead have forced the performers to mute themselves – at one point we see a painful injection, and the scream was not blood-curdling, as though the actor had to be aware of not deafening those in the front row. Moreover, blocking often left the audience unable to see some important moments, having instead to stare at a back while we wondered what terrible thing was happening the other side of the stage.
As the unideal staging suggests, the play itself felt like it was not quite finished. There is a lot of material here, but I do not believe the show I saw tonight will go down as the definitive version of SAVAGE. Writer and Director, Claudio Marcor has a fantastic story to tell: that of Dr Carl Peter Værnet (played by Gary Fannen), the medical practitioner who believed he could “cure” homosexuality. He was a man who received collusion from both his fellow Nazis, and later from the British and the Danish. He has characters to use as a foil to his anti-hero: his loyal nurse, who is ultimately driven to go against her employer’s back and show compassion for two broken men; a closeted Obergruppenführer; a feline Drag Queen who is “kind to everyone” until met with unkindness; two gay lovers; an English major who may well disturb the audience with his shift from righteous to sinister…
Marcor has these figures, but he needs to develop them and flesh out their stories. Some parts came across as pure exposition: such as the first scene between Nikolai (Alexander Huetson) and Zack (Nic Kyle), the unfortunate lovers, and certain exchanges between General Heinrich (Bradley Clarkson) and his lover-prisoner Georg (Lee Knight). Some scenes felt too long; the dialogue could use a bit of an edit, though other moments felt too short. For example, I wanted to better understand the doctor’s obsession with homosexuality, beyond the story of his childhood friend, as I felt there could be other interesting character’s memories and experiences that could have contributed to his fixation on same-sex relationships being “impure”. I also wanted to know a little more about Ilse (Emily Lynne), who’s fiery responses to Heinrich’s (Bradley Clarkson) obnoxious questioning imbued the scenes with a keen energy. I feel that the production as whole would have benefited from extended workshopping with Marcor’s script.
That’s not to say there weren’t truly touching moments, and glimmers of something really special in the play. When Knight gives a final femme performance of Lili Marlene, ultimately stripping off his female attire to show an almost naked man, we all connected with this brave, yet vulnerable, figure. Watching a naked Knight mouth words (of encouragment?) at a broken and similarly naked Huetson, the image of attempted comradeship amongst obvious humiliation was incredibly poignant. The moments of physical intimacy – the clinging between Huetson and Kyle – portrayed so much desperation, despair, bitter hope and unfailing love that I felt my own heart ache a little, and a sudden concern about my own (absent) partner.
If you too wish to bear witness, make your way to the Arts Theatre, and forgive any awkward seat you might happen upon. The show runs till the 23 July, but I feel that closing night will not be SAVAGE’S true end.
SAVAGE is playing Arts Theatre Upstairs until 23 July. For more information and tickets, see artstheatrewestend.co.uk