After seven weeks of work Mephisto is nearing completion; we have moved from a disparate group of acquaintances to a cast, and our characters have become friends, enemies, family, and lovers – and for some of us, all of the above at pretty much the same time. We have mapped out fights, choreographed dances, and have been forced to make good on all the little white-lies we told about our musical abilities when we auditioned. Above all though, we hope we have created a performance that respects and honours its source material.
With any show there is an obligation to ‘do justice’ to the writer’s work, the issues it seeks to explore and to the character you have been asked to play, however in Mephisto this sense of duty has been far greater. At every stage of the rehearsal process we have been reminded that Mephisto narrative is a true one, that it is composed of genuine experiences, and that our characters represent real individuals.
The idea of transforming these experiences into a ‘performance’ runs the risk of seeming disingenuous and opportunistic – the theatrical equivalent of the ‘Tragic Life Stories’ section of a high-street bookshop. However, through our research and discussions it has become apparent that the only way to do justice to the suffering experienced by those to whom the play is dedicated, is by doing justice to the vibrancy and vitality with which these individuals opposed and subverted the forces that sought to silence them.
The Germany of the Weimar Republic was a place of unprecedented cultural, scientific, and social progress, and some of the most ebullient scenes in Mephisto are the performances that take place in the Peppermill – the Bolshevik Kabarett (the ‘k’ and the two ‘t’s denoting its political intent, as opposed to the sexual burlesque of a ‘cabaret’) that was run in real-life by Klaus Mann and his sister Erika. These scenes depict a satire of malign bureaucracy and institutionalised bigotry that still feels fresh and exciting. Given the energy and inventiveness of those who inspired the play, to perform Mephisto as a dour sob-story would be the most self-indulgent thing we could do.
For my part, I have been given the task of exploring why Nazism proved so appealing to so many. My character Hans Miklas is a disenfranchised young man who experiences the deprivation and poverty of his life in inflation-crippled Hamburg as a symbol of the betrayal of Germany by its bourgeois leaders. However, while it is easy to give these sorts of intellectually rationalised explanations for his actions, far harder is the task of emotionally engaging with the liberating pleasure human beings can derive from legitimised hatred.
One of the stranger intellectual processes acting requires of you is resisting the temptation to pass judgement on your character in performance. It would be easy for the other actors playing National Socialists and I to manifest our disgust at the things we have to say and do, but it would also cause our performances to become muddy and half-hearted. The challenge we face in portraying those involved with the machinery of Nazism is discovering how to enjoy espousing such abhorrent values… before coming off-stage on Saturday night and washing our mouths out with bleach.
Any discussion of ‘the theatre’ (Darling!) and the process of play-making is apt to sound self-congratulatory, but the down-to-earth atmosphere that our director Milja has fostered in the rehearsal-room has meant that ego-stroking has never threatened to obscure the reasons we feel Mephisto’s story ought to be told. In the end, so long as we can convey those reasons to the audience the whole process will have been worthwhile.