Who would have predicted that Bath would become an international dramatic hub? Under Laurence Boswell’s direction, the gorgeous, inward-looking city has turned to Europe and across the Atlantic. The Ustinov receives no subsidy, so is unaffected by the swingeing cuts that are afflicting other small companies in Bath. It has produced some of the most outstanding plays of the past five years: Intimate Apparel (from the US), The Father (from France).
Now here, from Germany, is The Mentor, Daniel Kehlmann’s sharp satire about literary life. The isolated life of the writer is a slippery subject to put on the sociable stage. Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers recently showed how dull it can seem. Chekhov illuminated it with a glacial glance in The Seagull: a young writer, handed a magazine by an established author, finds that the older man has read his own story, but not looked at his acolyte’s tale.
Kehlmann, in his 40s and garlanded for his novels, is lightly lethal. Witness the moment when the mentor at a literary retreat looks into the face of his supposed mentee and delivers his long-awaited critical assessment of his manuscript. An apostrophe is in the wrong place.
F Murray Abraham, of Homeland and The Grand Budapest Hotel, is finely goatish (and goateed) as the venerated celebrity. Daniel Weyman is aptly jumpy and sceptical as the young follower who wants both to be bathed in praise and to vanquish the person who praises him. Does the dreary repetition of his favourite stories mean the mentor is a fool and his early work overvalued? Is his assessment percipient or prompted by jealousy? Or both? We don’t know. The bare staging – between scenes, a flowering tree sheds its petals to woodwind gurgles – teases. As does Naomi Frederick as the enigmatic wife/lover. In a lovely touch, Jonathan Cullen as the supposedly dull but possibly gifted arts administrator wears a sweater that echoes the description of his paintings.
Translator Christopher Hampton makes Kehlmann’s words luminous for a British audience. Hampton’s career is exceptional. He was a dramatic prodigy in his 20s. Forty years on he began introducing Britain to European theatre. Recent revivals show the shining record: Yasmina Reza’s Art and, perhaps the best translation ever made, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. We have lacked a new play. But meanwhile, here’s one he made earlier.
Hampton was 23 when he wrote The Philanthropist, which is spliced with delights. The names: the philologist is called Phil; the don is called Don (was Hampton referencing the Everly Brothers?). The coups de theatre at start and finish. The cherishable lines: “I’m a man of no convictions. At least, I think I am.” The elegant galliard it performs with Molière’s The Misanthrope: its hero, an academic, is as sealed off from the outside world as any 17th-century French courtier, working away on his anagrams while politicians are assassinated.
Simon Callow’s production casts it young, which is innovative, and famous, which reaps one strange and arresting moment, true though counterintuitive. Lily Cole – a transfixing column of legs and russet hair with an Eliza Doolittle posh accent – invites the astonished don to bed. It doesn’t go well. Blinking through his specs, he explains why: he just doesn’t fancy the beauty.
The play’s qualities are displayed but scarcely animated. Libby Watson’s design – how did the dons afford totally new furniture? – is challengingly bright. Matt Berry, sluggish in plum-coloured corduroy, and Tom Rosenthal, poised like a quizzical owl, look so primed for one-liners that no joke can live up to the expectation. Underneath the realism there is surely a weirder drama. The idea of the anagram is far-reaching: we may all the time be being juggled and rearranged by a playwright.
Star ratings (out of five):
The Mentor ★★★★★
The Philanthropist ★★★