Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable pieces of theatre I have seen in a long while. It was inspired by Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel, which was itself based on the true story of Mann’s fecklessly amoral brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, an actor who sold his soul to the Nazis. The last line of the novel is a feeble petition: “What do men want from me? Why do they pursue me? Why are they so hard? All I am is a perfectly ordinary actor.” The French playwright Samuel Gallet has used this as his departure for Mephisto [A Rhapsody] and given his story a contemporary context, setting it in the invented provincial town of Balbek.
The play examines artistic morality: should theatre lead a charmed life? Can an actor travel light, afford to be neutral about local and global politics with the failsafe excuse that he is acting? In a world menaced by the new right, is it acceptable to shelter within (to take just one example) Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard? The answer to this, and heftier questions, is never as simple as you might suppose.
This bracing show has been translated by Chris Campbell and tailored for an English-speaking audience by the remarkable Kirsty Housley (she describes herself as a theatre maker rather than a director). Her work fizzes with ideas (look out for her ingeniously stylised take on how to use stage blood). Serious without being worthy, the play is excruciatingly pertinent – especially in its exploration of nationalistic feeling. There is no stage, only a margin of red carpeted floor with mirrors behind (designer Basia Bińkowska). We see our reflections and wonder: who is watching who?
Leo Bill is brilliant as Aymeric Dupré, an actor whose deep self-interest is not altogether camouflaged by his nervous, ingratiating manner or his energetic stutter. No matter how over the top his rave reviews, Aymeric’s invariable response when they are read aloud to him is: “Any more?”
In a first-rate cast, Rebecca Humphries is marvellous as his principled lover, Barbara, and Elizabeth Chan vivid as his uncompromising and, eventually, scandalised colleague Luca. And Anna-Maria Nabirye splendidly uncorks the second half with a devastating monologue about the way black actors are typecast and allocated cameos in which to show off their singing voices. She makes the point powerfully – then sings. Everything, she tells us, is “political”.
It’s wonderful to see the Gate, which holds no more than 75 people, back on top form, doing the sort of work it does best.
Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) is a comfortless play about a couple with a disabled daughter. Directed with conviction by Simon Evans, it is full of uneasy jokes; but Nichols is there before you with the question: “Isn’t there a point where the joke starts using you?”
Toby Stephens is superb as the complicated Bri, an aggrieved schoolteacher who berates his class (the audience). At home, he’s attention-starved and pesters his wife with his amorous japes – a fall guy who seems to take up too much space in his own front room.
Claire Skinner, who played a delightfully dizzy mother in the TV series Outnumbered, skilfully revisits motherhood. When we first meet her, she has an air of suburban preoccupation and we can fool ourselves we are at the start of an inconsequential comedy – until Joe enters in a wheelchair, dressed like a speechless grownup baby in a knitted pink cardigan.
Joe’s desperate parents amuse themselves by putting words into her mouth. She interrupts them with painful groans. She is often talked about as though she were more turnip than human being. The best thing about this production is that Joe is played by an actor with cerebral palsy (the first time in the West End that the role has been taken on by a disabled actor). It is particularly uplifting hearing Storme Toolis, at the end of the first act, break free from her role – she has a lovely speaking voice – to tell us the interval has arrived.
You need whatever cheer you can muster to soldier on with this play. In spite of Nichols’s consummate ability, I resist his view of humanity, his low expectations of his characters. Any compassion in the play is compromised. Love itself seems disabled. (Is that his point?) When Sheila calls her daughter “Blossom”, she sounds like a patronising nurse. Her thought that “everyone is damaged in some way” is left to dangle uselessly.
At least Nichols gets comic mileage out of Bri’s mother, Grace. Patricia Hodge is a star turn, talking in an unstoppably boring stream to rival Jane Austen’s Miss Bates in Emma. The play is set at Christmas – in a depressing, paper-chained living room, designed by Peter McKintosh. And it quickly becomes clear, metaphorically at least, that the paper chains cannot hold.
Written and directed by Sean Foley, The Man in the White Suit is based on the much-loved 1951 Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness. Michael Taylor’s impressive, no-expense-spared set looks variously like a Lowry painting, a mad scientist’s laboratory and a baronial house. It even features a flashy red MG with footage of disappearing road behind it. It’s a theatrical farce that sings so hard for its supper (including skiffle songs by Charlie Fink, played by Matthew Durkan) that it seems churlish to be underwhelmed. But the flimsy narrative has nowhere near enough tension to keep one interested. Chemist Sidney Stratton (played with bumptious goodwill by Stephen Mangan) is on the verge of inventing an indestructible textile. It could potentially put people out of work. In the film this mattered; on stage it’s no more than a pantomime obstacle.
The most enjoyable moment is a dance in which slinky Kara Tointon, as the mill owner’s daughter, Daphne, entangles herself with our white-suited scientist. But unless you find spontaneous explosions (fart and belch sound effects), trousers falling down and sooty noses unmissably hilarious, you’d do better to head off and see Mephisto.
Star ratings (out of five)
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg ★★★
The Man in the White Suit ★★
Mephisto is at the Gate, London, until 26 October