BWW Review: THE MENTOR, Vaudeville Theatre
Bath's Ustinov Studio has become something of a European hub. Visionary director Laurence Boswell and ever-skilful translator Christopher Hampton, who first introduced us to Florian Zeller, are currently championing Daniel Kehlmann - a bestselling writer in Germany, where he published the first of 10 books when he was still a student.
That literary pedigree, and knowledge of the pressures that accompany early success, are on display in his stylish comedy - now playing in the West End. At just under 90 minutes, there's something of the Zeller about it (or perhaps Yasmina Reza's Art), but, though witty and erudite, its self-conscious metatheaticality makes emotional engagement more of a challenge.
Hotshot playwright Martin Wegner has been hailed as "the voice of his generation" (tell that to Lena Dunham), and a moneyed foundation has invited him to a mentoring week in the countryside with Benjamin Rubin - a writer who produced one great play aged 24, and has been struggling to match it ever since.
But mentoring quickly descends into artistic and psychological battle as Rubin brands Wegner's new work, the pompously named Without A Title, "completely dreadful". Soon Wegner is questioning both his vocation and his marriage, while a harried facilitator attempts to mediate in this clash of egos.
Kehlmann's enjoyably slippery piece leaves Rubin's motives murky. Is he a has-been jealous of this younger writer's talent and success - and attractive wife? Is he genuine in his views? Or is he just amusing himself while collecting a much-needed pay cheque? And who really has the authority to judge art anyway? (Says the critic - we don't come out of this terribly well.)
The generational battle is a constant one in theatre, with the loss of a particular approach or style vociferously mourned. Kehlmann gives weight to both sides of the argument, indicating that Rubin's structured realism isn't necessarily superior to Wegner's experimentation (his first play featured both a choir and a cement mixer), but in either case, process may sometimes be deemed more important than actual results and audience response.
That ties into the egregious solipsism of writers. Even when Wegner's long-suffering wife Gina voices her frustrations about his lack of interest in her career - she runs a museum, a job that funds his endeavours - he immediately changes the subject back to his plays. But as Rubin wryly notes, artists justifying their low standards of behaviour by citing "the great work" is only allowable if you actually produce it, and even then its greatness is surely subjective.
F. Murray Abraham, Oscar winner for Amadeus and current spymaster in Homeland, is in fine form as Rubin. Spry, elegant and nifty with the sardonic one-liners, he captures both the crotchety diva antics - Rubin's an unabashed whisky snob - and underlying melancholy of man glimpsing the end. Art, for him, has become a dreamland; if we imagine a better time, place and identity, perhaps it will become true.
Daniel Weyman is superb as the initially arrogant Wegner and, in particular, when he descends into existential crisis. There's absurdity to statements like "If I knew what the play was about, I wouldn't have had to write it", but also a palpable longing for validation.
Naomi Frederick defrosts icy Gina enough to make her reasonableness sympathetic, though it becomes harder and harder to see why she would put up with any of this, and there's a wonderful turn from Jonathan Cullen as the administrator who really wants to be an artist (he paints "moods"), and whose silent frustrations are communicated in a series of pained expressions and flouncing exits.
Boswell's sleek production teases the ways in which the play itself mirrors the characters' discussions, while Polly Sullivan's courtyard set evokes the nouveau riche, nature-taming country pile via painted flats, a chalkboard rendering, sculptural chairs shaped like giant hands, and a symbolic tree shedding blossom. The urbanites are dressed in pristine neutrals, later muddied as events escalate, and Dave Price mixes rural soundscape with droll musical cues.
If ultimately more literary trifle than fully-fledged drama, it's still a deft piece elevated by sharp performances.
Photo credit: Simon Annand