Mephisto [A Rhapsody]
Reviewed – 8th October 2019
“Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre”
‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is a vital piece of theatre for our times. Everyone needs to see this play. This French text, by Samuel Gallet, adapted from the novel ‘Mephisto’ by German Klaus Mann, effortlessly translated into English by Chris Campbell, has multiple layers of European history behind it, taking an overtly political stance on the contemporary cultural moment. The Gate Theatre has produced a piece that majestically puts its ‘Manifesto For Our Future’ into practice – is this now the most exciting theatre in London?
Gallet’s play follows the trajectory of Mann’s original novel fairly closely, with some crucial alterations. In a fictional provincial town, Balbek Theatre and its company are struggling to find relevance in turbulent political times. The far-right Front Line is on the rise, skirmishes are taking place in migrant camps, pigs-heads are being left outside their front door. Almost oblivious to the looming threat of fascism, company actor Aymeric Dupré (a sensational Leo Bill), all vanity and self-doubt, has his eyes on stardom.
Rather than selling his soul to the Nazi’s though, Gallet’s version of Hendrik Höfgen sells his soul to apathy. He just doesn’t care. When the right-wing actor Michael (a terrifying Rhys Rusbatch) turns against his company members, Aymeric only thinks about himself – and leaves for the capital. His career jets off, but the human, moral cost is clear.
Campbell’s translation is spot on, with contemporary, flowing language whilst keeping the usefully vague geography of the piece. But this production is so much more than the text. A post-interval addition told by Anna-Maria Nabirye (“the only black actor in the show”) interrogates our conceptions of race in theatre, and even the Gate Theatre isn’t left off the hook. One of the startling things about this production is the way it uses a story about actors to provoke theatres, theatre-goers and creatives into political action. We could be apathetic, we could do another Chekhov, or we could try and change the way our audiences think, feel and respond to the world around them. Are they preaching to the converted? Possibly. But how often do you go to theatre and leave actually wanting to DO something?
Basia Binkowska’s design keeps the backstage onstage, with lighting desk and costume rail visible until the surprising and tender ending takes us back in time to Klaus Mann’s hotel room. A golden fun-house mirror makes up the back wall of the stage, offering the audience distorted reflections of themselves and the actors on stage. Kirsty Housley has directed a company where there are no weak links. The action is kept simple, the audience frequently directly addressed, the text divided cleverly between actors/narrators. Housley also uses space masterfully, expansive gaps between characters as well as closeted crowds in ways that make the empty stage seem anything but.
I have slight reservations about the ending of the play, which doesn’t add much to the two hours of theatre before, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the power of this production. ‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is something special. Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Cameron Slater
Mephisto [A Rhapsody]
Gate Theatre until 26th October
Previously reviewed at this venue: