Theatre review: Mephisto, resonates in the pandemic as a powerful meditation on the intersection of art and life, in Cape Town 2021

What: Mephisto by Klaus Mann, adaption by Ariane Mnouchkine Where and when: Theatre on the Bay -August 25, 26, 27, 28 and September 1, 2 at 7pm. Saturday August 28 at 3pm Performed by:  LAMTA (Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy) Director: Chris Weare Design: Niall Griffin (set, costume, lighting and props) Tickets: R200 Bookings: E-mail or contact Sharon at 066 564 1816  

In the time of the global pandemic of Covid year two, we are in a time of extreme displacement, rupture and conflict. How do we conduct ourselves, under pressure, as we battle to survive? Actors have been displaced by the pandemic and are very much in the zone of conflict, with live performance essentially on pause since March 2020. It is an act of genius that LAMTA has selected the play, Mephisto, for its students to perform. Mephisto, adapted by French director, Ariane Mnouchkine, from the Klaus Mann novel, foregrounds the intersection of art and life; the personal and the political. The two cannot – should not – be separated.   Under the direction of Chris Weare and with the arresting design by Niall Griffin, the LAMTA students evoke the horror of this disturbing and dark play – with maturity beyond their years. It is a play which grapples with the importance of the role of art, artists and theatre – in rallying against social injustice; corruption and cruelty by those in power. The role of the artist is to speak out and not be silent. Mephisto is an important play. It is astounding that we are seeing this play staged during lockdown, by LAMTA, as a large scale production. Niall Griffin’s epic set uses the full volume of the stage – conjuring up bridge, railway and transit station, viewing platform with stairs and you don’t where they lead (to a labour/concentration camp?); shrouded by the dark and light layers of chiaroscuro.

LAMTA is the Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy, which is based at Pieter Toerien’s beautiful Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay- perched on the edge of the ocean. The students usually perform musical theatre. Mephisto is not a musical. It is a play which is anchored in story, as director Chris Weare says and by selecting the play, the aim was to get the students to grapple with narrative and its uneasy issues and questions. Weare: “It is a story that serves as actor training- a story which resonates very strong with strong themes- political, love – and the theme – there is a devil in all of us. What we would sell our soul for if it came to the push? It is a magnificent opportunity for teaching.”

Klaus Mann published his novel, Mephisto in 1936, when he was a displaced person, living in exile in Amsterdam, away from his home in Germany. He was the son of Thomas Mann who won Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. The armature of Mephisto was based on Klaus Mann’s ex brother-in-law, the German actor, Gustaf Gründgens. He was married to his sister, Erika. There was Jewish heritage in the Mann family but let’s not get waylaid by why they divorced but presumably that would have impeded Gründgens’ position as an actor in Nazi Germany. Gründgens continued to work, with the rise of the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, many of his colleagues refused to collaborate. They battled on and did what they could to survive. Many were murdered, others went into exile. Others “disappeared”. Many committed suicide. Klaus Mann suicided in 1949.  Gründgens died in 1963- long after the demise of the Nazi regime, so yeah, he was not held accountable for his actions of collaboration. French director, Ariane Mnouchkine adapted the novel for the stage. Two years later, Mephisto was made into the 1981 Oscar winning film, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and directed by István Szabó. Mnouchkine declined to do the film adaption.

The play and film are not the same. The play begins with us hearing that Kaus Mann’s novel has been rejected for publication by a German publisher because of concerns over a lawsuit.  As in the film, in the play, the character, Hendrik Hoefgen accepts the role of Mephisto in Faust and we don’t have to explain the symbolism there- selling one’s soul to the devil. I was mesmerised by the story and gripping discourse as his peers in a theatre troupe, continued to try and make art – doing their best to continue, carrying out their dalliances and staging plays.   The LAMTA artists are impressive in inhabiting the characters and the shattering landscape that they are caught up in but there are lashes of satire and mirth for comic relief.  It is a script which gets dense and is at times, challenging to follow. There is a lot to process and absorb. The production is scheduled for two more performances (September 1, 2, 2021 at 7pm). Try and get a ticket. We need to see theatre of confrontation; to jolt out of the fugue of the pandemic so that we can look back into horrors of the past, gaze at what is around us and chart our way through to brighter days.

Mephisto – staged by LAMTA, Cape Town, 2021. Left to right: Simone Neethling, Léa Blerk, Tannah Levick. Supplied.

Featured image: Left to right: Michiel Bester, Tumelo Mogashoa, Renee Malherbe. Supplied.