Review: Mephisto (A Rhapsody) (Gate Theatre)

Samuel Gallet’s satirical play comes to west London

© Cameron Slater

If the Gate Theatre's previous season was about who has the right to tell stories, then its newest programme starts out by discussing who should be listening to them.

Samuel Gallet's Mephisto, a reaction to Klaus Mann's 1936 novel, is set along designer Basia Bińkowska's long, narrow stage flanked by two reflective golden walls – a garish hall of mirrors. Based on the true story about an actor performing for the Fuhrer, Mann's novel and Gallet's play churn up a lot of scathing questions about the relationship between theatre, audience and the wider political world.

Translated here by Chris Campbell, Mephisto follows a narcissistic yet insufferably ambitious provincial actor Aymeric who, with Dick Whittington-esque drive, relocates to the big city to get his name in the right kind of lights. As his career blossoms, so too does political fascism within his country – extremism is normalised, refugees are ostracised and the arts are deemed irrelevant.

Director Kirsty Housley delivers a juicy mix of satire and sincere worry – keeping the piece fast, heady and consistently watchable. Gallet's text and Campbell's translation can sometimes feel a bit too polemical, spelling out issues with an unnecessary meticulousness, but things become meatier when the play juxtaposes the public role of the arts with the private motivations of artists. Aymeric is obsessed by staging Hamlet – a play about a character actively avoiding political life while habitually spending his time in a state of self-interrogation.

It hits a note when exploring the extent to which state-funded culture can genuinely critique those handling its purse strings and whether or not it's possible for theatre to engender change when the same, left-inclined (and predominantly white) audiences are the ones coming to see shows. Anna-Maria Nabirye wryly parodies this with lasting effect at the start of the second act.

Bill shines as Aymeric, straddling the right line between endearment and arseholery. The rest of the cast rarely gets the same sort of time to deliver anything more than speedy, one-note performances, but there's some fantastic work done by Nabirye and Rebecca Humphries.

It's unsurprising that a play interrogating echo chambers resonates so cleanly. Like Bińkowska's warped, glassy walls, all that a lot of theatre seems to do is reflect audience ideas and beliefs straight back into their faces – distorted, perhaps, but never challenged.