Mephisto

Wed 22nd – Sat 25th February 2012

reviews

Daniel Malcolm

at 10:17 on 23rd Feb 2012

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5disagrees

The telephone rings; it rings again smiling smugly; and continues ringing with a look of cheeky defiance. Meanwhile a German housewife reads from a report blaming the telephone for Germany's every ill. Puffing and panting with matronly outrage, she screams silence at this cancerous foreign technology that has infiltrated and corrupted every pure German's home. Finally, under orders from another piece of paper, she shoots the telephone dead.

This is revolutionary theatre; funny, fresh and defiantly political. Mephisto is the true story of the actors of a socialist theatre company, the Pepper-Mill and their confrontation with Nazi Germany. Making a virtue of their low budget, they physically embody everything from telephones to filing cabinets (exploiting the humour of storing government paper work in a shapely behind). But after the ingenious rival of this Bolshevik total theatre, the portrayal of the lives of the actors outside their revolutionary theatre in Hamburg is less inspired. The fluid and irreverent improvisations of their skits, in which scene, accent and sexual temperature change on whim, give way to a very conventional history lesson. And simple, self-contained and subtly provocative sketches - which play hide-and-seek with the Nazi censor - are replaced by an all too obvious morality-tale in which a troupe of helpless heroes are crushed by the jack-boots of the National Socialist Party.

It is perhaps time to introduce Mephisto, the least integrated character of a plot so centrifugal it would give Aristotle the heebie-geebies. Klaus Mann's original focused on the moral dilemma, the tormented Hendrik Hofgen faced under the Nazis (known by his most famous role Mephisto). Unlike the other members of the Pepper Mill, he chooses to put his acting career before his integrity. But in this stage adaptation, though the bare-bones of his Faustian pact with the Nazis are preserved, he's so pared down as a character that he hardly has a soul to sell. He is in fact a mere side-show accomplice to the real villain of the piece the 'grand master of hell', Adolf himself. In contrast, to the conflicted hypocrite of the 1981 film, Hendrik is a mere pantomime villain, who never really has any convictions, friends or love to betray. His personal character and defining role only overlap because neither shows much Mephistophelean flair or mischief - you wouldn't have guessed that Hofgen was Germany's greatest actor, had you not been told.

Mephisto finishes with the whole cast standing on stage. Like talking tomb-stones, each remembers the name of an actor, writer or director who was killed, or committed suicide under Hitler or Stalin. The actors leave the stage without taking a bow - it's a moving touch - only it's all a little too simple. The last tombstone is Klaus Mann's, the author of the novel Mephisto. The mention of his suicide is a little strange - because it was by all accounts an act of personal disillusionment rather than political defiance. In its zeal to tell a true and powerful story, Mephisto is in danger of reducing conflicted characters to heroic types.

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Emma Yandle

at 10:19 on 23rd Feb 2012

1agrees

1disagrees

In an OTR backstage interview, May Anderson summed up the problem I had with Mephisto: "for all the buzz surrounding it, there’s not a whole lot of consensus about what kind of show 'Mephisto' is".

Was it about revolutionary theatre? Generational divides? The point of art? Crimes of the Holocaust? Ambition? The pre-show material paints it as the struggles of the (historically true) communist theatre company, The Peppermill, to survive the cultural and political intolerance that overtook Germany with the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. Yet the climate that could distinguish a troupe like The Peppermill could also enable its chief actor to rise to meteoric national fame. Hendrik Hofgen, played by Nick Howard Brown, becomes the figure that epitomises the choice of the German citizen who wasn't a Jew, a Communist, or a Homosexual: whether or not to rise at the expense of the fallen.

If this is what the play had been about, I would have been able to rate it more highly. Yet it suffered from a lack of unity in purpose: the first Act was a disparate collection of episodes, from political and theatrically experimental sketches to intense dialogues, whereas Act II suddenly brought in all the context and became very Holocaust heavy, in a manner that was well done and upsetting, but that fragmented my sense of what the play itself was actually trying to achieve. I felt the breakdown of relationships that was meant to be so heartbreaking in the second Act had not been established enough in the first. Consequently I didn’t feel much more than an understanding of what was being played upon, rather than the real remorse expected. Whilst an audience member will certainly see what the play is trying to do with its shift of focus, I can't say that it felt like an easy progression. I left the theatre with the memory of some standout scenes, but no hard-hitting, emotionally challenging narrative. My programme had a lengthy introduction from Director Milja Fenger, that stressed the power of theatre to make us question, but most importantly to make us feel. I feel that the quest for feeling overtook a sense of the story. I was certainly moved by the ending, but perplexed as to how I had got there.

Some people may not see this criticism as a necessary requirement of theatre, in which case Mephisto's positives would outway my negatives and I'd recommend buying a ticket. The play included some particularly powerful performances from its females: Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Juliette, Georgia Waters as Alex and Joana Duyster Borredà as Erika Bruckner stood out as three women from very different social backgrounds and whose struggles were allotted unequally, yet achieved equal poignancy.

For me Mephisto was at its best when it embraced the Cabaret-esque sensual seediness that I had expected it to be about (and perhaps therein lies my fault). A semi-permanent presence onstage from the live trio of piano, violin and (wonderfully played) clarinet gave the play moments of charm that cleverly offset the danger of the world that lay outside the theatre's walls. Indeed, the director's brilliance appeared most clearly when she was playing herself on theatrical conventions. 'Mephisto' is worth seeing just for the way productions within the play took place under spotlights at the back of the stage, propelling the audience from viewing naturally to eerily observing as if behind the scenes and the way the actors left the stage at the end of the play. That was really good.

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