*performs oldass play slightly worse than it’s ever been performed before*
Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is this tweet by Chris Fleming pulled apart and made meaner, contained in the Gate Theatre’s slim sliver of space – but only just. It has so much it wants to rail against, poke fun at and pause over, it’s hard to know where to begin writing about it.
It’s an adaptation by Samuel Gallet of Thomas Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto – Novel of a Career (itself a Faustian tale), translated caustically by Chris Campbell and directed by Kirsty Housley. And it is as European theatre-focused, Western history-concerned as you can get. Characters expound on the virtues of producing Chekhov versus more political work, first in the small regional theatre of Balbek and then, in the second half, in the undefined Capital. Meanwhile, fascism rises unstoppably around them.
It’s a diatribe-loaded piece, and no-one gets to let off more rants than Leo Bill as the ambitious actor Aymeric Dupré. He pronounces actor ‘actah’, theatre as ‘theatah’, and defaults to checking his reflection in the gold plastic reflective wall running along the set when no attention is being paid to him. Nearly all the characters are portrayed as varying degrees of boorish, with Aymeric perhaps the most – he’s talented, we’re assured, as he rapturously pictures tidal waves of curtain calls or gnaws on his beer bottle like a starving small animal.
He’s a buffoon at the centre of this play – but all the other characters are just as interesting as him. Elizabeth Chan’s activist-minded Luca and Rebecca Humphries’ Barbara are inexplicably drawn to Aymeric (or to Balbek?). Tamzin Griffin is the glamorous artistic director of the Capital’s New Theatre, while her stretched-thin counterpart Eva runs Balbek’s theatre. Subika Anwar-Khan plays Aymeric’s sharply self-serving friend Nicole, and Sean Jackson doubles as both a critic and a far-right MP.
Basia Binkowska’s design is smart: these characters inhabit an area of red carpet that’s so narrow that they are almost pressed up against us, sitting on chairs until needed they’re for the action. A gold streamer curtain sits at the centre of the dimly reflective wall. Some live projection onto this wall isn’t hugely easy to see, but otherwise Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting is nimble and responsive. Housley directs the play so that it feels populated by attentive agents, who move in swaying packs of luvvies as Aymeric begins to make it big. Its two moments of violence sit at opposite ends of realism.
Mephisto [A Rhapsody] feels righteously angry, but I’m not sure it gets anywhere. Its characters argue, but there’s little sense of how producing “political” work helps fight fascism, which makes it feel as if the play is saying it doesn’t – nothing seems to help. Every effort is doomed from the outset, which makes sense when super self-consciously adapting Mann, with reference to Ernst Toller; both of these leftist artists struggled after being exiled from Nazi Germany.
Most of the characters are these right-on, middle-class arty types; it seems like a strange choice to have the two characters representing fascism the only ones to not speak in the same, “proper” tones (Rhys Rusbatch’s Michael, who is allowed to speak some sense alongside bigoted ravings, and Jackson’s Fabien Muller). Anna-Maria Nabirye (as the successful, defiant Juliette Demba) is the only character with a “visible” race and gender. She cracks up some of the audience uncomfortably by pointing out that her song before the interval is the part where the only black cast member, in a production headed by white creatives, sings. But how far does self-awareness get us? Is this a purposeful mimicking of the racial makeup of the theatrical world on which Mephisto [A Rhapsody] has its gaze entirely trained? Is that enough?
This production skewers “us” (everyone who dares to be interested in theatre, in this day and age, with a conscience – the kind of people who will watch this play), and for the right reasons. But although I can appreciate its willingness to fray its form and its merciless cynical eye, perhaps its impact on me was muted by my own inclination towards hope.
Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is on at the Gate Theatre till 26th October. More info here.