The musical Bent

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In its original run on the West End in 1979, Bent regaled theatre-goers and critics alike. Set in Nazi Germany, the play brought to light the little discussed topic of the persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s regime. But, with reproductions all over the world ever since its debut, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the popular play and its cast. In 2009, the theatre presenting Bent in Texas became a target for anti-gay groups, forcing the production to shut down and find an alternative venue. But, when it’s been staged in Hong Kong, there hasn’t been such a drama. And no doubt the script and subject matter is close to theatre star and gay activist Joey Leung’s heart. He played the role of protagonist Max in a graduation production early on in his career. And now, 12 years later, Leung reprises the part in the latest Cantonese-language revival of the production. Time Out speaks with him to find out how Bent might actually shake up Hong Kong theatre.

Will your reprisal of Max be any different from last time?
I played Max 12 years ago when I was 24 and back then I was acting in an older role, as Max is 36. This time I’m playing him at exactly the same age and I find that I have experienced a lot – as a man, as an actor and in how I perceive love. I have a lot more experience now. The world is already a different place. Even in Hong Kong, people are more willing to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in. There are a lot more social movements like the protests against Chinese national education and the LGBT anti-discrimination rally. I am playing Max in a social climate where people are concerned about their identity, their rights and their human dignity. This is what the play is about.

What’s your take on the heavy themes of the play?
We did a lot of research the first time we produced this play and we found out that it was based on historical fact – an awfully true part of human history. We went further and researched into Hitler’s regime and how one man’s twisted ideology can result in the slaughter of millions of people. It felt dangerously relatable and that it could happen again, so we as a society should take a step back and take a look at how we are treating the people around us. We really should be cognitive about any cruel intentions and bring them to light before they become dangerous. But, most importantly, I feel that we have to deliver a good performance – not to hone our craft as artists, rather to honour those who died in the concentration camps.

What are the challenges of presenting a setting like Nazi Germany in Cantonese?
Sometimes the audience will react differently to something like foreign names when it’s translated but a good play is about the story. Even if one of the settings for Bent is in a concentration camp, the emotional experience of losing a loved one and a person’s relationship with their family is universal. This is a story about love and everybody can identify with that.

The first West End production of Bent sparked a discussion on the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. Will this play open up a similar dialogue in Hong Kong?
Art is food for thought. Sometimes art can inspire self-reflection and help us to re-evaluate ourselves. A lot of the discussion about discrimination in Hong Kong revolves around offences and defences. If we can learn to love and respect one another, a lot of the problems in this world can be solved.

This play has a powerful subject matter around the subject of sexual identity. How do you think audiences will relate to Max as opposed to, say, what you did in your popular hit, The Queer Show?
The common themes in the work I do are about respect and love, and that hasn’t changed whether it’s Max in Bent or my other work. Actually the same topics about coming out and family explored in The Queer Show are also in Bent, but just in a different genre.

Can we expect some pretty steamy scenes in the play?
The movie of Bent (1997) stayed true to its dramatic roots. So what was portrayed in the film will also be on stage as well. However, I always think that theatrical performances are much more powerful. There is an actor on stage in front of you, presenting his emotions for the audience to see. These emotions are alive and raw – and that is why I feel that the theatre-going experience is different from the silver screen.

Bent runs Mar15-23 at Kwai Tsing Theatre. Tickets: urbtix.hk.

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