Theatre review: Mephisto

Posted: July 19, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

A dance with the devil.

First published in the Sunday Independent– July 2010

Watching Mephisto unfold on stage is like observing a steamboat slowly tugging towards the edge of a gaping waterfall whilst the passengers are frantically rowing with teaspoons in the opposite direction.  The horrific end is always in sight and it makes their plight all the more tragic and shamefully fascinating.  Inevitably a desperate scramble for the one remaining life jacket ensues and mankind’s fight for survival is exposed in all its ugliness. 

Mephisto, Kate Liquorish as the actress Theresa von Herzfield in Mephisto, photo by Jesse Kramer

Ariane Mnouchkine adapted Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto which he wrote in 1936 mainly as a voice of protest against the German actor Gustaf Gründgens who Mann considered a traitor for prostituting himself to the Nazi’s while his fellow artists were persecuted and forced to flee the country.  Gründgens’ single most famous role was that of Mephistopheles in Goethe‘s Faust.  Mann committed suicide at the age of 34.  In one of his final essays he wrote, “I’d like to see hundreds, thousands of intellectuals follow the examples of Virginia Woolf, Ernst Toller, Stefan Zweig, Jan Masaryk.  A suicide wave among the world’s most distinguished minds would shock the peoples out of the lethargy, would make them realize the extreme gravity of the ordeal man has bought upon himself by his folly and selfishness”. 

Mephisto is a grim look at the lives of the actors that lived during the rise of the Nazi regime.   The actors are battling to maintain their integrity and independence under increasingly gruelling conditions.   Freedom of speech is curbed by the rising fascist powers and for many of the actors what initially started out as a journey of fulfilling their artistic ambitions soon becomes a desperate struggle for survival. 

It is a brave piece to put on but artistic integrity is always a compelling topic; especially for those in the business.  Mephisto is about what happens when art and politics meet and it’s not a pretty union.  It is also the first of four plays performed by the Mechanicals theatre company during their 2010 repertory season.    The mechanicals are self funded and the passion for their craft is tangible. 

The full cast of the Mechanicals is present in Mephisto and it is challenging to single out performances as the entire cast is just so obviously committed to the play.   However, the performance by Tinarie Van Wyk Loots is iridescent.  She is just so watchable.  She has clearly immersed herself into her role as she becomes the seductress, the tortured artist and the hopeless lover.  We are even treated to cringe-worthy and thoroughly entertaining kissing and fondling scene between Emily Child and Van Wyk Loots that makes Madonna and Britney look like cheap amateurs. 

Tinarie Van Wyk Loots, left, and Emily Child with Guy De Lancey watching in the background photo by Jesse Kramer

Adrian Collins also delivers a convincing performance as Hendrik  Höfgen, the actor who makes a pact with the devil by selling his soul to the Nazis in return for a successful career while his friends and colleagues are either murdered or commit suicide. His is a contentious role as he often tries to help his friends but somehow he lacks the emotional intelligence to acknowledge that he is part of the problem.  Roxanne Blaise gives a sterling performance as Juliette Martins, Höfgen’s lover of Jewish origin that he chases away in a fit of fear.

The costumes are breathtaking and fully embrace the 20’s flapper style complete with soft silky dresses, perky hats.  Guy Delancy is super weird as the eccentric writer, Theophil Marder. He wears dark glasses on a deathly pale face and wafts around with a skinned fox, complete with head and feet, draped across his shoulders.  Mind you he once wrote, “Working with the mechanicals, for free, is better than a stab in the eye with a blunt baguette.”
The stage design includes a large staircase that doubles as train station, bridge and a balcony.  The lighting at times feels as if it can be a bit stronger especially when the actors are at the very top of the staircase and their expressions are difficult to see.  You also really have to pay attention during the first half of the play as you are rapidly introduced to the many and complex characters in the play.   However, Christopher Weare’s direction feels strong and it makes for a grim but compelling night at the theatre.   Daniel Galloway has promised that the second installation of the repertory series, COSI, promises to be a much more hilarious affair.  COSI is set in a burnt out theatre and it is the story of a manic depressive, a drug addict, a compulsive liar, a pyromaniac, an obsessive compulsive, a comatose pianist, a person suffering from adjustment disorder and one lost director, attempting  to perform Mozart’s master piece, the Opera Cosi fan tutte.
Sounds like fun

Mephisto plays in the UCT’s Arena Theatre until 24 July.

The End

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