On the 5th of May 2015, The Guardian published an article by campaigner Peter Tatchell with the provocative title “The Nazi doctor who experimented on gay people – and Britain helped to escape justice”. Playwright Claudio Macor read the article and set about dramatising the story. The result of Claudio’s work can be seen now at the Above the Arts Theatre in Soho as Savage receives its world premiere.
It is 1940 and at the Danish Medical Association in Copenhagen, Dr Carl Peter Værnet (Gary Fannin) is giving a talk on his research which he wants the association to finance. In another part of the city, two young men are enjoying a night out at their favourite spot, The Corner Light Club. The men, American diplomat Zack Travis (Nic Kyle) and art gallery worker Nikolai Bergsen (Alexander Huetson) are in love and should be filled with the joys of their romance but tonight is different as club owner Georg Jensen (Lee Knight) has announced that due to the Nazi occupation of Denmark, he is closing the club at the end of the evening, much to the consternation of his regular patrons and other artistes such as the lovely Goran (Kristian Simeonov). Later that evening, as Nikolai and Zach walk home, they are stopped by the authorities and Nikolai is arrested. After being interrogated by his captors, Nikolai is taken to Dr Værnet for treatment. Today is an auspicious day for the doctor as he is demonstrating his ‘cure’ to SS Obergruppenführer Heinrich Von Aechelman (Bradley Clarkson) an urbane, intelligent man with a penchant for good champagne. Before starting the demonstration, the Doctor explains his theory to the General. The Doctor believes that homosexuality is a choice that comes about due to a lack of testosterone. With the help of his nurse, Ilse Paulsen (Emily Lynne) and the guards, the Doctor administers his ‘cure’ to Nikolai. Von Aechelman is very impressed and tells Værnet he will be recommending his work to Himmler. In the meantime as the war moves on, Zach has been posted to France and is desperate for news of Nikolai who he knows was arrested and taken to the doctor but has lost track of since then. At the end of the war, Zach returns to Copenhagen determined to find his love while Dr Værnet is arrested and passed to the British to be interrogated by Major Ronald Hemingway (Christopher Hines) as a potential war criminal. At last, it looks like justice has caught up with the Doctor.
Savage is in some ways, three stories in one play. There is the story of Dr Værnet, the romance between Zach and Nikolai and finally the secrets of Von Aechelman. To my mind, this is a problem as there is so much going on that it is difficult to really get to know and connect with any of the main characters. This could be because little is known of the real people involved in the story. A quick internet search reveals hardly anything about Dr Værnet but does answer some of the questions I had about the time span of the play and what the doctor was up to between first showing his ‘research’ in 1940 and the scene that takes place in 1944 when he is returned to Copenhagen. I also do think that the sub plot with Von Aechelman didn’t really add anything to the overall story although I have to admit, as a consequence of this, I really admired the character of Georg Jensen – superbly played by Lee Knight – who, despite everything, never stopped believing in himself and retained his own personality throughout.
On the whole, the acting was pretty good throughout and Gary Fannin was particularly good as the cold, unfeeling Dr Carl Værnet, a man prepared to break the Hippocratic Oath “first do no harm” because of a boyhood experience. Gary portrayed him as clinical, only showing any form of emotion when eagerly waiting for the SS General to arrive. And speaking of the SS, I have to say the author didn’t fall into the trap of painting the General as a barbarian. The reality is that most of the top level people in the Nazi regime were well educated, intelligent people. And Bradley Clarkson plays SS Obergruppenführer Heinrich Von Aechelman superbly in that respect.
Looking at the technical aspects, I liked the slight but versatile set design by David Shields and admired the pretty much authentic costumes of Jamie Atleet. In fact Georg’s costume for his opening scene in drag was simply stunning. My one concern – and this is me being super geeky – is that I’m not sure the General was wearing the correct rank insignia on his collar or epaulets, but other than that, the uniforms looked pretty good and era specific.
To sum up then. Savage tells a horrific story of an atrocity that still has repercussions today – the number of people still searching for a ‘cure for gay’ is quite scary. I found the actions of the British officer interrogating the Doctor absolutely repugnant but unfortunately his reaction was utterly correct for that time period. On a personal level, I think the play could do with being a little shorter and more concentrated, especially on the Doctor’s story as I found myself wondering how he had started work on his cure, what experiments he had carried out before and what his relationship with his family was like whilst he was working on his horrific experiments for the Nazi party. Overall, Savage is not an easy play to watch. The subject matter is highly emotive and unfortunately still somewhat relevant. The story is fascinating and, whilst on the whole I quite liked the play, I do feel there is still a bit of work to do to take it to the next level.
Review by Terry Eastham
LWL Investments & Entertainment Limited presents the world premiere of ‘SAVAGE’, a new play written and directed by Claudio Macor.
COPENHAGEN 1940. With the Nazi occupation of Denmark, life did not change much. Zack and Nikolai enjoy their glamorous, hedonistic life and the paradise of cabaret. Their world is shattered when Doctor Carl Peter Værnet discovers what he believed to be “the cure for homosexuality”. He’s applauded by the Nazi regime and encouraged with his experiments. This important New Play exposes a heart-breaking love story amidst the brutal and savage TRUE STORY of an obsessed Nazi war criminal.
Performances: 29th June – 23rd July at 7.30pm. Saturday matinees at 2.30pm.
Age recommendation: 16 + Please be aware his show contains nudity and graphic content throughout