Christopher Hampton’s translated version of German author Daniel Kehlmann’s successful second play The Mentor, currently showing at the Ustinov Studio in Bath, will be the first introduction to Kehlmann for many of us, despite him being widely known in his native Germany and having had his novel Measuring the World translated into 40 languages.
Having read literature and philosophy at university, (publishing his first novel Beerholms Vorstellung while still a student), there is a philosophic and satiric core to The Mentor that Hampton and director Laurence Boswell clearly enjoy conveying to British audiences, for the play’s themes transcend culture differences to engage audiences on both a humorous and profound level. Examining a writer’s natural insecurities and self doubt, and posing the question ‘what qualifies anyone to judge a work good from bad?’, as the text so rightly observes, a good play will get bad reviews just as a bad play will receive good.
It surely says something for The Mentor that Hollywood actor F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his gripping portrayal of Salieri in the 1984 film Amadeus, makes his return to British theatre after an absence of ten years in order to lead the cast of four as Benjamin Rubin, a writer who shot to fame at the age of 24 but has never managed to reach the same heights. Now on the wrong side of middle-age, with a couple of properties and ex-wives to maintain, he’s in need of some cash and has reluctantly agreed to work for a charitable arts foundation whose wealthy benefactor is paying him 10,000 Euros to mentor budding author, Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman) for a week.
It sounds simple enough, but following an awkward initial meeting in which Martin reveals that he is being paid the same, the arrogant Benjamin appears to be more interested in his new protégé’s attractive and astute wife Gina (Naomi Frederick), whilst demanding whisky from the foundation’s representative Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen), and spitting it out when it isn’t the label of his choice, it’s obvious that Martin and Benjamin aren’t likely to see eye-to-eye.
The action is set entirely in the courtyard of the foundation over less than a 48 hour period, with Polly Sullivan’s design providing an intentionally claustrophobic backdrop to the text. We’re told regularly about the frogs in the garden and the expanse just ahead of us, even the smell of the grass which Gina points out to an oblivious Martin, yet a single blossoming tree is all that we see of nature, with lapses of time illustrated by falling blossom which the meticulous Edwin, a failed artist, is ever keen to clear away.
It comes as no surprise that Benjamin dismisses Martin’s play, Without a Title, as beyond redemption, nor that the young author is unable to handle the brutal denunciation which soon finds him questioning every positive review he ever received, not least the generous words of encouragement from Gina who clearly supports the idea of him being mentored in the hope of salvaging yet another bad work. Resentful of being the bread winner and having had to put any baby plans on hold for Martin’s career, her long-held admiration for Benjamin sees her bask in his, albeit faded, reputation when her husband, after hurling his laptop and manuscript out of the window into the frog-inhabited pond, runs home to lick his wounds like a school boy.
It’s not a plot that reads all that comically on paper, yet the dialogue is so deftly written and assuredly acted that there is much to be amused about. The absence of an interval draws us in further until we, like the characters, question Benjamin’s motivation in annihilating Martin following his flirtation with Gina over the whisky he previously declared undrinkable. When Martin makes a dramatic return the next day, dripping with pond water and grasping a handful of papers, having chosen to prioritise salvaging his manuscript over his marriage, the relationship struck up between Gina and Benjamin is understandable. What remains baffling, however, is all the needless posturing, the themes of artistic subjectivity and ‘looking through a mirror into a mirror’. Ultimately this is a very simple piece trying too hard to over-intellectualise the fact that Martin’s play, just like The Mentor, remains at the mercy of its audience.
The Mentor at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Saw Close, Bath BA1 1ET, until 6th May 2017. Production images by Simon Annand. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.