Mephisto is a play about plays, about the boundaries between art and life; about where one ends and the other begins. How can one be “just an actor” when the world outside the theatre is in political turmoil? How can one be “just an actor” in 1930s Berlin? Mephisto interrogates these questions through its depiction of The Peppermill theatre, a radical Bolshevik theatre troupe set up in 1929 with the aim of promoting Communism through the medium of theatre, depicting their rise to prominence and fall from greatness as the Nazis gain power. In this theatre, we find the play’s Faust, the young actor Hendrik Hofgen, who sells his artistic integrity for fame and fortune under the Nazi regime through his performance of Goethe’s Mephistopheles.
Not only is this play intensely concerned with the question of the meaning of art, but in its own status as a work of art. Whilst the rehearsal was in a room in Hertford, the production team promise to turn the Playhouse’s stage into the backstage of The Peppermill’s own theatre, complete with exposed rigging, cable drums and clutter. Indeed, the play begins with the cast bowing, not to the audience for whom they will perform, to the audience for whom they have just performed, with the cast facing away from the Playhouse audience to bow to the Hamburg Theatre’s spectators.
The first scene that we were shown, a snapshot of the Peppermill’s cabaret, a ‘rehearsal’ of a satire of Weimar bureaucracy, set in an office for social security, was pure Brecht. Histrionic dialogue being bellowed out, waving limbs and human furniture all created a sense of dislocation that was only heightened when the skit finished and the cast turn to discussing their next scene in an entirely naturalistic fashion, before rapidly shifting between these two modes in order to explain hyperinflation to a confused cast member. Mephisto seems to be a highly strung balancing act, gaining its dramatic power through the contrast of these two modes. Another scene, set on a railway bridge, a powerful piece of dialogue about the victims of the Nazi regime was delivered by Georgia Waters without any such conceit: rather, it gained its power through her straightforward, forthright delivery of the lines.
The play’s concerns with theatricality are enmeshed not only in the script of the play, but in its production. As well as acting out scenes from the play, we were treated to an insight into the ‘mind’ of the production in the form of a rehearsal of a scene. Rather than simply acting through the scene, each actor was given a prompt, a command to fulfil. For example, Nick Howard-Brown had to play his character, Hendrik Hofgen, as though he was desperate for the toilet; Gottchalk, played by Joseph Allan, had to act stone deaf. This conceit is not just confined to the rehearsal space, but will be a part of every performance of Mephisto. Every night, each actor will be given a different prompt, and so no two performances will be the same. Each performance will reveal a different subtext, a different aspect of what is shaping up to be a fascinating production.