Writer: Daniel Kehlmann
Director: Laurence Boswell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Who decides what makes great art – is it the critics who allocate a star rating, the audiences who flock to see it or, like peer review in academia, should fellow writers, painters or musicians insist on its importance? Daniel Kehlmann’s play The Mentor, translated from the German by Christopher Hampton, considers the difficulties of building and sustaining a reputation as a great artist.
As part of a “cultural sponsorship” scheme, respected playwright and novelist Benjamin Rubin is asked to spend five days mentoring aspiring young writer Martin Wegner at a country retreat. Their different approaches to literary merit quickly leads to a clash of egos, and when they learn they were both paid to be there the relationship disintegrates entirely. But with Martin’s pragmatic wife in tow to smooth things over, do the writers have anything to learn from each other after all?
Kehlmann’s play has arguably invented a new theatre genre all of its own, the philosophising farce, which attempts to merge a series of intellectual discussions on the origins and purpose of great writing with the three-act silliness of classic stage comedy. This may not be deliberate, however, and while The Mentor has many entertaining moments, this production hasn’t quite decided on a style.
Director Laurence Boswell’s interpretation sits somewhere between a straight drama that seriously explores the clashing ideals of two very different men, a send-up of the behaviour of precious artists, and a hyper-real world of abstract discussions and hissy fits. Christopher Hampton’s translation brings out the sulky pomposity of its leading men and there are plenty of wry moments, which make for a pleasant enough night at the theatre, but it’s never close to properly skewering how disconnected its characters are from the real world and deciding whether to mock them for it or not.
The meat of the story belongs to F Murray Abraham as Benjamin Rubin, the famous writer-turned-guru, who lays claim to great insight but is only there for the money. Abraham has a powerful presence that helps to reinforce the mystique around his character, while finding a level of bitterness at only being remembered for one play. Rubin makes lists of diva-demands and believes his own publicity, which initially makes him fairly loathsome, but Abraham works hard throughout to ensure the audience is never quite certain if Rubin is genuinely a genius or a pathetic has-been.
Daniel Weyman’s Martin works in the opposite direction, gaining our sympathy only to lose it by revealing his own inability to accept criticism and an arrogant streak. The parallels with Rubin are clear, but Martin’s behaviour becomes more outlandish as the story unfolds and less believable, but that’s more to do with the uncertain pitch of the show than Weyman’s performance.
In a less rounded role Naomi Frederick as Martin’s wife, Gina, a museum director, acts as a levelling presence, soothing the egos of the writers until snapped by her husband’s continual self-obsession. This also feels like a missed opportunity to comment on the management of the arts from an alternative perspective – the behind the scenes roles artists never see – but instead she becomes an object to be won rather than a pillar of the debate. And likewise, Jonathan Cullen’s arts administrator Erwin does little but bring the tea, a role that could have been better utilised.
With a run time of just 80 minutes, The Mentor is a brief examination of the way in which artists are built-up then torn down when they become too successful. It’s a shame not to have explored the changing pitch of the mentoring relationship over a number of scenes and it needs a clearer tone, but it does offer some engaging philosophical debates on the subjective nature of art.
Runs until 2 September 2017 | Image: Simon Annand