Having a son-in-law with a penchant for the peaty flavour of Speyside single malt I felt nicely placed to appreciate the recurring whisky schtick that garnishes this engrossing and amusing play. The central character of The Mentor is an over-the- hill, once-wunderkind, solo-hit- wonder playwright who advocates Speyside, in true whisky-bore fashion, to add to his collection of pet small-talk obsessions like ex-smoker bore, thrice-married-womaniser-bore and god-do-I-need-the-money-bore.
Benjamin Rubin is the mentor in question, played with ruthless cognisance by the ever-green F. Murray Abraham who channels a whole new dimension of harangue-ability in his merciless desecration of budding playwright Martin Wegner’s new work without title. No, the title is Without Title: much mirth. The character of the simpering, self-obsessed, easily-crushed Wegner is cleverly constructed by Daniel Weyman whose nuanced embarrassment quotient, unappreciated by the character, makes us cringe. We’re definitely in snowflake territory here – though The Mentor, first produced in Vienna in 2012, predates the recent emergence of that pejorative epithet.
Daniel Kehlmann’s intriguingly voyeuristic play is metatheatre at its most disarming: a play about plays and playwrights and theatrical convention and art. And also about… ahem… critics. Critics who bandy around phrases like “the voice of his generation” and …er … perhaps “intriguingly voyeuristic play”. Guilty as charged, M’lud.
The whisky-themed running gag, as well as others like the frogs and smoking and quasi-environmental predilections demonstrate Kehlmann’s lightness of touch in what is a meaty subject: meaty perhaps but meaty of the Quorn variety – easily digestible and doesn’t do you any harm.
A kind of low-key, reluctant master of ceremonies and conductor of the awkward orchestration of mentor and mentee is Erwin Rudicek, Jonathan Cullen doing wonderful justice to what could easily be an unforgiving side-show role, reacting in turns with sympathy, empathy, patience, impatience, disbelief, alarm and ultimately horror at the self-important, posturing egos that are on display at his institute for the advance of the arts of which he is curator. An artist himself – who paints “moods” – he muses that no child grows up with the ambition to be an arts administrator before deciding to quit his job and go for it – whatever “it” might be. Cullen is a laugh a minute and a perfect foil for the abrasive Rubin and the frog-averse Wegner: yes, in this age-old battle between the traditional and the new, the old and the young, the conventional and the avant-garde, Kehlmann references Aristophanes in his putative playwright’s fear that the frogs from the pond, always in discreet evidence in Dave Price’s delightful soundscape, might escape into his bedroom. As curator Rudicek’s mood darkens in response to the demands and mercenary preoccupations of his charges he tells Wegner that indeed a frog does occasionally invade the bedroom – in fact, lots of frogs do, frequently. Breaking loose from the shackles of arts administration does wonders for the release of that inner dark humour. The old against the new discourse in Aristophanes’s “poet-off” in his play The Frogs is thus the thematic inspiration behind Kehlmann’s fascinating and accessible play. (Yep, that’s another one, M’lud). I’m filing The Mentor with Yasmina Reza’s Art and Bennett’s The Habit of Art as excellent examples of the art-imitating- art genre.
Also at this meeting of once-was and wannabe minds is Wegner’s wife Gina (Naomi Frederick), not just there to add decorative distraction as lecher Rubin would have it but a woman of substantial intellect and artistic nous herself, as well as writer-husband-supporting bread-winner who finally gets round to telling her soul mate the truth – his plays are crap – just like Rubin says – which deflates him like a punctured bouncy castle and drives him to drink – not whisky but into the drink – the frog-infested pond to retrieve his tantrum-flung laptop and hard-copy script. Frederick ensures that she as actor, and her character Gina, hold their own in this testosterone-fuelled namby-pamby writers’-cramped atmosphere: an Amazon in blonde’s clothing if ever there was one (ok M’lud – I’m off to the cells).
Polly Sullivan’s beautiful design, which has blossom falling intermittently throughout in the garden location – which Rudicek lovingly sweeps up from the table – is excellently complemented by Colin Grenfell’s subtle lighting design and Director Laurence Boswell cleverly contrasts the beautiful surroundings with the cut-with-a-knife tension of the warring playwrights. Boswell is the Artistic Director of the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal, Bath – where The Mentor started it’s UK journey – the latest in a long line of non-uk play “discoveries”.
Christopher Hampton’s translation of Kehlmann’s play is the work of someone who understands translation as well as being a quality playwright in his own right (who is obviously going to grasp the subject matter!) You could imagine that there might be a lot that is good in the original that won’t work in English – but Hampton finds a way. For Kehlmann, flexibility is the technique. “Authors don’t want their phrases to be preserved like dead flies in amber” he says: “They want the audience to laugh”. And that we do. A lot. Because we like laughing at playwrights who are laughing at playwrights. And of course, laughing at critics, a bit, along the way is always good craic.
Review by Peter Yates
Benjamin Robin is a cantankerous old writer, whiskey aficionado and pedant, still basking in the reflected glory of long-ago success. Martin Wegner is a rising young literary star, heralded as ‘The voice of his generation’.
When Martin is given the opportunity to develop his new play under the mentorship of his idol, the two writers meet and two massive egos are set on a collision course in this perceptive and compelling comedy about art and artists and the legacy of fame.
Booking Period: 24 June to 2 September 2017
Running Time: 90 mins (no interval)