wed 28/02/2024

Mephisto [A Rhapsody], Gate Theatre review - the callowness of history | reviews, news & interviews

Mephisto [A Rhapsody], Gate Theatre review - the callowness of history

Mephisto [A Rhapsody], Gate Theatre review - the callowness of history

More manner than message in adaptation of Klaus Mann's 1930s novel

A face to meet the faces... Leo Bill as Aymeric, the protagonist of 'Mephisto'Images - Cameron Slater

You wonder about the title of French dramatist Sam Gallet’s Mephisto [A Rhapsody], an adaptation for our days of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel about an actor unable to resist the blandishments of fame, even if they come at the cost of losing himself.

Those who know the story from Hungarian director István Szabó’s celebrated 1981 film with its mesmerising central performance by Klaus-Maria Brandauer might come to this looking for an element of tragedy, one moderated by the merciless accusation of complicity directed at a character unable to resist the enticements offered by Nazism, a figure who becomes an artistic celebrity by going along with the rising regime. But “rhapsody” surely suggests something else, a lyrical element – a rush of ecstatic inspiration – that it’s hard to find even a hint of here (what the implications of the square brackets may be is another matter, too).

Kirsty Housley’s production, played along a narrow strip of stage to a design by Basia Binkowska, has plenty of energy, her cast of eight always agile as they present a story that is itself inherently theatrical, but ecstasy seems the one element lacking. Rather there’s pronounced satire directed both at Mann’s central character, here named Aymeric and played by Leo Bill (pictured below), and at the world in which he lives and works, a regional theatre company somewhere (we presume) in Germany in the 1930s where the opening action takes place; it’s followed by a second-half relocation to the “big city” (we guess, Berlin) and Aymeric’s greasy-pole ascent towards celebrity that sees him losing any values he may have started out with. However, from the way he’s presented here, such values, starting at the individual level and working outwards into the professional, were never really there, which makes it hard to feel much about the process of his personal corruption.

Extremist rhetoric sounds sincere by comparison 

There’s a determined attempt to bring home parallels with the present day. The theatre troupe in which Aymeric is the petulant star is putting on yet another Chekhov, when some of them, the committed Luca (Elizabeth Chan) especially, think they should be doing something more radical of their own devising in response to the times, or at least anything with an even vaguely political hint. There’s been far-right violence at a local immigrant camp so a display of solidarity is called for, while the theatre is feeling political division at closer quarters, whether it's the sinister attention of a local politician or the fact that one of their number, Michael (Rhys Rusbatch), is taking up an extremist line.

However, Aymeric is more engaged with a listless involvement with Barbara, daughter of a famous director, an attachment that duly gives him his way out, a step preluded by a scene of onstage breakdown in which he lays into the values of his provincial audience that Bill manages beautifully (he shows equal accomplishment in an earlier tour-de-force analysing the quality of applause). The presentation of this central character, with a smarmy self-satisfaction that makes your skin crawl is a considerable achievement for the actor, even if it has the unlikely effect of making Michael’s extremist rhetoric sound sincere by comparison.Mephisto-Leo Bill as AymericThere are other things going on in this world, as indeed in the play, as an opening second-half monologue from Anna-Maria Nabirye about being a black actor playing to the expectations of a white audience suggests. But Housley’s production moves increasingly towards revue, Aymeric’s rise and rise charted with generous allusion to the trappings of celebrity of the present day (some skilled company work presents a sense of the enveloping entourage of fame). The growing stylisation of this generic world increasingly removes any sense of our involvement, so that by the time the action reaches Aymeric’s realisation of how far his compromises and concessions have gone, how hollow his protestations of “only doing my job” have been, we’re relating to him more than anything on the level of case study (Gallet’s penultimate scene brings that home all too baldly).

No doubt that was the writer’s intention, a direction matched by Housley’s conscious pursuit of elements of alienation. I’m not sure that necessarily works best with Mann’s original (especially given the direct relation of the story to the writer’s own life) but Gallet’s adaptation has chosen concerns that go beyond that. It’s one way of presenting the issue and, in an uncanny theatrical coincidence, you only have to cross Notting Hill and drop in at the Coronet, where an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s novel Youth without God is playing, to ponder the comparison. The worlds that von Horváth and Mann map out, their choice of subject are disconcertingly close, the central element being the choice that the individual confronts when faced with a nascent mass movement that cardinally challenges all past assumptions. I’m not sure it’s a comparison that works to the advantage of this Mephisto; rather the callowness of character of its protagonist has somehow grown to dominate the theatrical experience itself.

There’s a determined attempt to bring home parallels with the present day


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