Based upon Klaus Mann’s novel of the same name, Milja Fenger’s production Mephisto tells the story of Hendrick Hofgen, an up and coming actor whose quest for fame is gradually compromised by the Nazis’ rise to power. Like the source novel, Ariane Mnouchkine’s adaptation is an earnest, passionate attempt to address the conflict that burns within every human being – the battle between good and evil, between virtue and greed, right and wrong.
Despite the beauty of Mnouchkine’s dialogue and some inspired directorial decisions, the play too often eschewed a flowing narrative in favour of exposition or clumsily proclaimed portents of doom, and in the hands of the wrong actors even the most beautiful dialogue can transform into melodramatic rants.
There were some impressive technical touches - most notably the use of an open curtain and footlights at the back of the stage to convey the audience beyond – but Bronya Arciszewska’s costumes were the most successful element in conveying Germany’s ten year passage into hell.
The journey of Mephisto’s main protagonist, Hendrik Hofgen is supposed to be our main focus, however, Nick Howard Brown’s portrayal in early scenes lacked the naivety and charisma necessary for us to warm to his character and conversely his later scenes lacked the underlying self reproach that we needed to see in order to empathize with his descent from decent actor to Hitler’s servant. Consequently, the Faustian allegory of Mann’s story was diluted.
Fortunately, the play’s depiction of the Hamburg Peppermill’s ill fated troop of communist revolutionaries was far more intriguing, and though I’m unsure if this was intentional or a side effect of Tim Gibson’s passionate portrayal, the character of Otto Ulrichs often seemed like the main character. The play took flight each time he and his fellow revolutionaries – actors Joseph Allen, Philippa Baines, Zoe Bullock, Lucie Cox and Georgia Waters: all brilliant – took to the stage with their expertly crafted political skits. One such skit, a mock public announcement about the danger of ‘telephones’, was both hilarious and cutting, and this scene would’ve been worth the ticket price alone.
The rise of Nazism is a chilling story, which should never be forgotten, and the background details we were offered throughout Mnouchkine’s script consistently thought provoking, but the play’s overall message struck much harder when the lines were less forthright and performed with more conviction.