Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Review The Mentor

The Mentor (Der Mentor)
by Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Christopher Hampton

The Blagger's Guide To Playwriting

A celebrated veteran playwright (F Murray Abraham) at the moment finds himself mostly in movie development hell. His most famous work is the stuff of college syllabuses rather than current productions, but he has now received an invitation.

He arrives at a picturesque villa in the German countryside, complete with its own Greek chorus of chirruping birds and ribbiting frogs, as the paid for guest of literary benefactors to mentor a young dramatist (Daniel Weyman).

The younger man's career, maybe on the strength of one adulatory - or perhaps puff-atory depending on your degree of cynicism - review, has gained momentum and seems a suitable case for philanthropy. 

Like some well-worn latter-day Oscar Wilde the older vainglorious Benjamin Rubin, with unnaturally dark hair matched with a grey goatee, at first throws out aphorisms he has concocted, probably as old as his most well-known work.

However Rubin quickly clashes with his not-so-willing pupil Martin Wegner, also a paid for guest, who is accompanied by his cool blonde museum chief and art historian wife Gina (Naomi Frederick).

Tempers fly and there's no way to measure who, out of Rubin and Wegner, is the greater talent or whether they have just negotiated their way through the politics of the playwriting hierarchy.  

The playwright, Daniel Kehlmann, is a hugely popular German-born novelist and playwright and this is a sharp  comedy of manners, positioned as a memory play, written in 2012. 

It's an elegant, lucid performance both visually and aurally from Murray who turns into a kind of comico-tragic Hamlet as directed by Laurence Boswell. Yet we weren't at all sure about the play as a whole, even though the smaller role of frustrated abstract painter-turned-arts administrator Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) also made an impression and is a deftly drawn character. 

The set also partially reflects a certain abstraction. We couldn't place the location although we read afterwards it was meant to be Germany.

To our eyes the design (by Polly Sullivan) with its layered perspectives and pink villa reminded us more of a Danish or maybe a Tuscany villa than German Jugendstil also known as the-turn-of-the 20th century nouveau art.

The set is  elegant and ingenious with indications of an unpainted rough draft outline alongside a naturalistic cherry blossom tree. However its indeterminate location may take away from the  meaning of the play.

Indeed we have some sympathy with Rubin's frustration with the Scottish whiskey served by the foundation's administrator - The Mentor is like a blend in landscape and ideas rather than pure spirit.
Benjamin Rubin is presumably Jewish (at least on his paternal side) and it appears speaks fluent German which begs a question.

A foundation set up by a German industrialist and his family owns the villa, which itself may beg questions about the Second World War past, and runs the mentoring scheme.  Against this context the profession of Wegener's attractive wife as a history of art expert and museum curator is also a loaded matter.

There are some other clues (the links contain spoilers if you're going to see the show), some rather cryptic and obscure - an allusion to a classic Austrian short story, a reference to an award named for a German Jewish critic famous for his feuds and possibly another to a celebrated German author who admitted late in life SS membership.

This may make this play, with clarinet riffs between scenes by composer Dave Price, more than a slight story of literary egos over a couple of days. But blink, and you'll miss these hints.

It's 80 or so minutes long and before the final moments we were re-imagining it as a movie, mildly in the style of A Bigger Splash, where a director could relish the landscape and plant visual clues.

As it is, in a play, the allusions to German language literature in the early twentieth century and a rather savage subtext feel way too subtle and the comedy drama too abstract.

It would make sense if it were envisaged as going on to be a movie.  Yet, as indicated, albeit couched in the flashback to a comic battle between the older and younger generation, The Mentor does evoke unexpectedly the feel of past ghosts and unresolved matters.

We think we are justified at teasing this meaning out, bearing in mind the playwright Kehlmann's own background with a father who survived  partly as a beneficiary of a confused paper trail laid out by the writer's grandparents.

The geographical vagueness does the play no favours, but we did laugh at the playwriterly neuroses and pondered the change from pen and ink to scripts on computer and possible connections to Greek comedy. It's smart, sophisticated and a well-performed entertainment, but also unsatisfying, so it's an amber light.

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