Monday, July 4, 2016

'Savage' at Above the Arts Theatre, 1st July 2016

The opening night of Savage began with playwright Claudio Macur reciting a poem about the Pulse nightclub atrocity. It reduced the nightmare down to a repetition of "pulse", the word underlining the tragedy of snatched lives, the historical vibrancy of the gay rights movement and the universal idea of humanity pulsing - we're all in this together.

It was a moving, appropriate and emotive prelude. It was also the high point of the night.

Savage aims to educate its audience about Nazi crimes against gay men. The focal point is Dr Carl Værnet, a Danish GP whose experimental hormone therapy 'cure' resonated with the quasi-scientific theories used by the Nazis to justify their atrocities. Impressed by the apparent efficacy of his methods, Nazi higher-ups transferred him to Buchenwald Concentration Camp and allowed him to experiment on gay inmates.

Of his 17 subjects, 2 died of infection and the rest were considered to have remained homosexual. He was subsequently dismissed from the camp as a failure and returned to Denmark where he was arrested by Allied forces and interrogated under suspicion of war crimes. Faking a heart condition Værnet quickly made a beeline for South America, where he died in anonymity in 1965, never having faced justice.

The Nazi persecution, imprisonment and murder of gay communities is an important and oft-overlooked facet of their crimes, and the story of Dr Værnet is neatly illustrative of their perversion of the scientific method. His methods place Nazi homophobia in a wider context, showing a continuity between Nazi war crimes and, for example, the state-sanctioned hormone therapy Britain  famously inflicted upon Dr Alan Turing.

It's an important subject and easily deserving of dramatic treatment. But, regrettably, Savage quickly turns out to be utter dogshit.

Most egregious is a meandering dramatic structure that appears more interested in a gay Nazi subplot than the crimes of Dr Værnet. Essentially there's two stories vying for attention; the theoretical A-plot follows the relationship between Nikolai (Alexander Huetson) and Zack (Nic Kyle), torn apart by the war and Dr Værnet's 'therapy'. Arrested after leaving a gay club, Zack is released due to diplomatic immunity while Nikolai is handed over to the sinister doctor to demonstrate the efficacy of his therapy. Following this, he's left traumatised and mutilated, surviving the war only because of the kindness of Værnet's guilt-ridden nurse (Emily Lynne). 

Lovers struggling to reconnect upon being torn apart by war is a pretty classical romantic tale, and were Savage entirely this then maybe it'd work. But, unfortunately, Savage appears much more interested in a dom/sub tinged relationship between a Nazi general (Bradley Clarkson) and his pet drag queen (Lee Knight). 

Purely statistically, many Nazis, even prominent ones, must have been gay. Some no doubt even kept secret lovers. Their hypocrisy is worthy of attention, but the amount of attention lavished upon it in Savage only distracts from the central subject matter. On top of that, Obergruppenfuhrer Heinrich von Aeschelman (who as far as I can tell is entirely an invention of the playwright) feels like he's wandered off the set of 'Allo 'Allo.

For the most part Savage is broadly naturalistically performed, yet watching this I suspect Clarkson is taking cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark, such is the level of sneering, moustache-twirling overt bad-guyness (it is probably a bad sign when audiences are giggling at the OTT camp Nazi in a serious play about war crimes). The seamy cherry on top, is a queasy fetishism that bubbles under the erotic scenes: the dom General's shiny jackboots, riding crop and swastika armband unintentionally giving the play a Naziploitation porno sheen.

Worst of all, this entire subplot could be excised without taking anything away from the history lesson on Dr Værnet. Then again, what would remain doesn't exactly set the world on fire. Though we learn a decent amount about Dr Værnet's motivations for pursuing his 'cure', we're kept in the dark about what the psychological and physical consequences for his subjects actually are other than a generalised trauma: partially the fault of the writing and partially due to a generally flat performance from Alexander Huetson. Everything else is plagued by clunky dialogue, overlong scenes and fuzzy character motivations.

The whole affair smacks of wasted opportunity and wildly undisciplined writing. I guess purely by dint of being about Dr Værnet the play succeeds in informing its audience of his existence, but on every other level it fails. 

Savage is at Above the Arts Theatre until 23 July 2016. Tickets here.

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