Savage, Above the Arts, London ★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Homosexuals were among many of the groups targeted for extermination by the Nazis during World War II, that much is known. Lesser known is the involvement of Danish doctor Carl Værnet who, under the watch of Heinrich Himmler, conducted a series of hormone experiments on gay prisoners in an attempt to find a “cure” for what he considered a disease of sexuality. It is this terrible period of history upon which Claudio Macor’s new play, Savage, attempts to shine a light. A shame, then, that instead it is more concerned with some bizarrely constructed fictional relationships that obscure, rather than illuminate, Værnet’s actions.

The sociopolitical situation in Copenhagen in the early years of World War II – a time when the Nazis occupied the country, but society, including the country’s nightclubs and its royalty, attempted to maintain as normal a life as possible – provides a period of history that has rarely been seen. In Macor’s play, though, there is little to differentiate between it and the pre-war Berlin of Isherwood and Kander and Ebb. There is even a nightclub, where the emcee, a drag queen known as “Dee Dee Sahara” (the first, but certainly not the last, anachronism that uses 21st Century language, preventing the audience from really buying into the premise) disrobes while singing an off-key version of Lili Marlene.

Picked up by the police after leaving this club, Alexander Huetson’s Nikolai becomes one of Værnet’s first test subjects. Gary Fannin’s Værnet is a monotonic, cold figure, far more impressed with his prowess than his results would suggest is deserved. After a fraught scene where Huetson is pinned down while injected with a series of hormones, Macor does at least establish that Værnet’s techniques were a failure, even by his own limited measure of success. Of the snippets of factually correct dialogue that pepper the melodrama, it is revealed that of the 17 men on which he experimented when he was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp, two died from infection and none of the others were cured at all.

Nikolai’s relationship with American diplomat Zack Travis (Nic Kyle) is the romantic heart of the play, with a spark between Huetson and Kyle in their early scenes together that transcend their occasionally trite dialogue. There is enough there to convince that Nikolai’s disappearance may spur his lover to attempt to find him but, in the second act particularly, his hunt for and reunion with Nikolai stutters unimpressively. The pair’s reunion, amid Nikolai’s obvious mental distress, never feels like a genuine expression of a man broken by the abuse meted on him.

But Nikolai and Zack’s relationship is a vast improvement over that of Bradley Clarkson’s Nazi general and Georg (Lee Knight), the bar owner-cum-drag queen whom he keeps as some form of sex slave. This nebulous relationship offers little in the way of illumination of the central story, other than to suggest that the innocent gay men subjected to Værnet’s ministrations were hardly the most deviant of people compared to the doctor’s paymasters.

The space at Above the Arts is a challenge at the best of times. In even these mildly warm early summer evenings, the heat is oppressive, placing extra demands on an audience that already deserves to see a play delivered with a pace that is missing here. In addition, little attention is paid to its lack of raked seating, meaning that any scenes played out with actors sitting on the floor become audio dramas for all but the front row.

There is little doubt that historical abuses against gay people deserve a shining light placed upon them so that we never forget. But, in a modern world where gay “cures” are still peddled and lives around the world are destroyed as LGBT people continue to be treated as diseased people to be somehow purified, such history lessons need to be packaged in ways that are rather better than this overlong, melodramatic production.

Continues until July 23. Photo: Roy Tan