The Mentor

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Daniel Kehlmann play The Mentor that explores the themes of art, politics and reputation.

Naomi Frederick and F Murray Abraham in The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre

The relationship between art, politics and reputation is explored by German playwright Daniel Kehlmann in his disappointing 80-minute piece, The Mentor (Vaudeville Theatre), translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Laurence Boswell.

In a chic art nouveau villa, two massive egos are set on a collision course. Benjamin Rubin is a cantankerous old writer, whisky aficionado and pedant, still basking in the reflected glory of long-ago success. Martin Wegener is a rising young literary star, heralded as “The voice of his generation”. A wealthy arts foundation has agreed to pay Rubin 10,000 Euros to spend five days at this swish Italian retreat mentoring the young dramatist Wegner, whose first play involved 35 extras and a cement mixer!

Wegner brings a draft of his new work entitled Without a Title for the celebrated author’s scrutiny. After rifling through the pages, Rubin asks “What kind of front is this?” and pointing out “an obviously misplaced apostrophe”, as if avoiding typos what the man measure in assessing creative talent. When pressed for a verdict, he pronounces the worthless. “Tell me do you absolutely have to be a writer?” Is this an old man’s envy or a ploy to test the mettle of the younger man?

This piece about art and artists and the legacy of fame has fun with the farcical elements and its philosophical insights are handled with a degree of wit. But it feels insubstantial and apart from Rubin, the characters are flimsy and unengaging. Indeed we never really care about what is going on and the play at times lapses into pretentiousness.

Polly Sullivan’s atmospheric set evokes a manicured retreat, while Dave Price’s sound design brings chirruping crickets and twittering birds into the mix.

But the production is given a certain jolt by an acting masterclass from veteran American Star F Murray Abraham (best remembered as Salieri in Amadeus) who, with his grey goatee and air of weary grandeur, brings a combination of meanness and mischief to the ageing, arrogant playwright Benjamin Rubin, an illustrious has-been whose career has failed to live up to the one great play he wrote at the age of 24. Daniel Weyman lends a degree of conviction to the role of Wegner but Naomi Frederick is severely underused as Wegner’s childless wife, Gina and Jonathan Cullen has little to do as the arts administrator and would-be artist who has set up the mentoring.

It is a pity, though, that Abraham, here making his first West End appearance in more than 20 years, doesn’t have more to get his teeth into than this shallow drama.

The Mentor

Showing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 2 September 2017

Photo: Simon Annand

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