Mark Ludmon reviews Samuel Gallet’s Mephisto [A Rhapsody] at London’s Gate Theatre starring Leo Bill
Mephisto [A Rhapsody]
Gate Theatre, London
Why adapt a 1936 novel about the rise of fascism in Hitler’s Germany for the stage in 2019? What is the point of any piece of political theatre, especially when audiences tend to be liberals who are already onside? These are among the questions posed in Mephisto [A Rhapsody], a provocative new play based on Klaus Mann’s classic story about an actor, Hendrik Höfgen, who pushes moral qualms aside to gain power and fame under the Nazis. Written ahead of World War Two and revelations about the Holocaust, Mephisto is a chilling, darkly satirical novel that is well-known in mainland Europe but less so in the UK. Updated by French playwright Samuel Gallet to the present day, the story has been given a further spin by translator Chris Campbell and director Kirsty Housley to make it powerfully topical.
As Brexit and Extinction Rebellion rage in the world outside the Gate Theatre, Mephisto [A Rhapsody] explores what can be achieved by staging the political. Like Mann’s amoral Höfgen, young actor Aymeric Dupré talks of staging revolutionary agitprop but always reverts to the safety of crowd-pleasing Chekhov and Shakespeare in his pursuit of fame and acclaim. Starting out in regional theatre in the town of Balbek, he ignores the rise of fascism that troubles his friends and fellow actors in his single-minded desire for success in the capital. His refusal to engage in politics is contrasted with his friends who join protests and campaigns, but are they just “hipster tourists” dipping into the lives of immigrants and people living in poverty without really understanding them? Aymeric’s excuse for inaction is that “I’m just an actor” but, while he risks losing his soul through a deal with the fascists, is he right that actors and theatre are impotent in the face of populist demagoguery?
Like the original novel, the show is packed with ideas about populism, theatre and the role of the artist. It also tackles attitudes to race, going beyond Mann’s concern with anti-semitism to address racism generally. Picking up on the book’s problematic depiction of Höfgen’s black mistress, it questions representations of black characters in film and theatre, especially in a story created, written and directed by white people and performed in front of predominantly white audiences.
The whole process of theatre-making is under scrutiny, reflected in its overall meta-theatricality including Basia Bińkowska’s set that resembles backstage with costume rail and stage manager’s desk. As part of a strong ensemble, Leo Bill is excellent as Aymeric, intense and charismatic, with an ambiguity around how much he genuinely believes in the liberal sentiments he claims to harbour. Like a musical rhapsody, the show builds into an emotive meditation on the horrors of fascism and those who collude in it, combining hope for change with despair at the cycle of politics and history that means far-right populism is always lurking in the wings.
Running to 26 October 2019