BWW Review: MEPHISTO [A RHAPSODY], Gate Theatre
The tiny town of Balbek is falling prey of the far right. Their theatre, managed by the loving but politically weak Eva (Tamzin Griffin), is inhabited by an assortment of actors with different priorities as well as worldviews.
Aymeric (Leo Bill) wants fame, Luca (Elizabeth Chan) pines for a liberal revolution, Michael (Rhys Rusbatch) is siding with the extremists, Juliette (Anna-Maria Nabirye) is afraid of what might happen to her, and Nicole (Subika Anwar-Khan) is doubtful of their current politics. Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is a slow burner, an almost experimental satire on the role of socially engaged drama and the value of betrayal in a dangerous political climate.
Originally by French playwright Samuel Gallet and translated for the British scene by Chris Campbell, the cautionary tale on the repetition of history turns into a complex and multilayered piece of theatre with Kirsty Housley's direction. Everything is on show: costume changes take place at the far end of stage right while stage management sits on left, props and microphones are handed by the crew in plain view.
All the while, the metallic backdrop shows distorted reflections of the audience, making them as complicit and guilty as the characters shown. The meta-theatrical nature runs through the show solidly, but it's not entirely revolutionary in its textual delivery. A few appropriate clichés are scattered throughout, at times drowning out its politically involved vein while melodrama suddenly surfaces in a rush. This, however, only adds to its performative quality.
From the critique aimed at theatres that don't put on political work to the corny whims of the single actors, it sways between being a sharp commentary on modern artistic engagement to wallowing slightly in its own self-referential vanity here and there - always managing to keep its finger on the pulse.
There seems to be a dramatic cut between the vibe of the first act (which takes place in the small town) and the second (where Aymeric has moved to the big city to find fame). If Act I is all about the Balbek troupe trying to take a stand and fight back the rise of the far right movement with art, Act II points the spotlight on Aymeric and turns his life into a frenzy of drugs, celebrities, and arrogance.
His conceit grows as Housley's visuals change into quick glimpses that show uncomfortable truths that sit very well into the context. Images that seem to be taken straight out of Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty depict debauchery and decadence that feed back into the political stance.
This latter element - although always presents in the play - has the tendency to take the backseat when the entertainment industry becomes the main event. These two thematic lines don't run at the same pace but join together at the end, putting the whole plot into perspective. The foundations of Gallet's story - Gustaf Gründgens and Klaus Mann's historical reputations - finally come into the light and the director unearths the core of his message brilliantly.
She shapes the ending into an expressionist coda that, steering away from the grounded and too-real remarks, soars to become a chilling look into the past to warn us about our future. The rich cast accent the duty of the artist led by an obnoxious and entitled Bill whose critique to his own category is subtle and stinging in his stunning performance.
He goes from metaphorically hitting his head against the wall in Balbek, ridiculing the town's small-mindedness and lack of artistic appreciation, to selling himself off to achieve a status, even dressing in the typical actor's snobbish uniform constimg of blazer, t-shirt, and baseball cap. Nabirye is a powerhouse as the disillusioned and socially aware Juliette. She intervenes with her heavy critique, highlighting the white supremacy tendencies that surround the time period and the immediate threats to her person.
Rusbatch is sullen and passionate in his xenophobic portrayal of a hateful young man. His presence is overpowering, but lands on solid ground when met with the other performers. They all build the tone of the show together, working solidly towards the ultimate resolution and turning Mephisto in the page-turner it's supposed to be.
The second act leaves a bigger mark and rightly feels like it's set in a different world than the first. Gallet/Campell write a compelling tale, but it's only thanks to Housley's tightly detailed direction that it's able to undo its self-indulgent ties and open a window onto the perils of disengaged art.
Photo credit: Cameron Slater