As I sit here writing this review there is a leadership election being undertaken in the UK for someone to take David Cameron’s place as head of The Conservative Party.
Among the five contenders still in the race is Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, who entered politics as an intern for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), an organisation offering and promoting a ‘gay conversion therapy’. So the idea that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ to be ‘cured’ is still very much with us, at least within the realms of right-wing politics and nut-job religion.
In a way that’s what makes Claudio Macor’s important new play, Savage, all the more disturbing.
Set during and just after the Second World War it tells the true story (spoiler alert!) of right-wing Danish general practitioner, Dr Carl Peter Vaernet, whose experiments to try to cure homosexuality lead to him being noticed by the occupying Nazi forces.
Anxious to exploit his expertise the Nazi’s transferred him and his family to Prague in early 1944 giving him the title of SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (Major). Later that year he was able to further his experiments at Buchenwald concentration camp where he is known to have operated on at least seventeen men to try and ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality. What other duties he undertook whilst there are disputed, but that many hundreds – and probably thousands – of inmates died as guinea pigs, as the result of being experimented on, is not.
At the end of the war, and apparently with the connivance of the British Army – who would have loved his treatment to be effective, homosexuality in Britain still being a criminal offence until 1967 – he was able to feign a heart condition and, under the guise of seeking treatment in neutral Sweden, escape to South America where he lived out his days with his wife and family, surviving until 1965.
Macor tells his story set within the framework of a love story between two men, gallery-worker Nikolai (Alexander Huetson) and American Embassy employee Zack (Nic Kyle).
Returning one night from a gay nightclub run by Georg (Lee Knight), Nikolai is picked up by the police and taken into custody (even though homosexuality has been legal in Denmark since 1933).
Anxious to show his ‘cure’ to the local Nazi commander, General Heinrich von Aechelman, (Bradley Clarkson), Dr Vaernet (Gary Fannin) and his nurse Ilse, (Emily Lynne), use Nikolai as a subject, but von Aechelman has a secret of his own…
Macor’s writing is clever and, when it needs to be, touching though I think the play would benefit by showing more on Dr Vaernet’s work in action.
The scene where Nikolai has his first treatment administered, for example, is as harrowing and dramatic as any you’ll see on a London stage this year. Both the writing and acting are magnificent: the juxtaposition of a half-drunk Nazi commander’s matter of fact conversation with Vaernet, as behind him the frightened Nikolai is being readied to be operated on without anaesthetic is truly gripping.
Elsewhere all credit to Alexander Huetson and Lee knight who literally bare all for their art, though that being said, when the cast is fully dressed, Jamie Attle’s costumes are the best I’ve seen at this venue and evoke the period nicely, and in convincing detail.
In the published script (now available in Oberon Modern Plays) Peter Tatchell details how the files relating to Vaernet were classified until 2025. Both the British and Danish governments wanted to hide their involvement with him. For that reason alone this is a story which deserves to be told, and play which deserves to be seen.