There are plays and then there are plays. Mephisto, the story of a radical cabaret troupe’s struggle for survivial in Nazi Germany, is most definitely the latter.
What strikes me first and foremost about this brilliant production of Mephisto is the attention to detail, construction and effective and imaginative use of the set. It’s superb, and some of the best I have seen, not just in student drama, but in the professional theatre too. It is especially wonderful when we as an audience are able watch performances at the club from behind, as if we were back stage. I don’t know much about lighting, and as a result I dont often comment on it, but even I could appreciate the beautiful brownish tinges to much of the lighting, which bathes the stage in an almost sepia tone. The music is equally as evocative, if not quite as brassy and ‘cabaret’ as I expected. There really is nothing quite like a live band, and the wide range of instruments played as part of the performance add a whole new dimension to it’s intrigue and poignancy, especially for me in the tender dance between Nicoletta and Erika in the first half.
The acting is also very good, though the intensity and dedication to character I feel can still be upped further throughout the run. I was particularly impressed by passion displayed by Richard Hill as Theophile Sarder as well as the impressive comedic talent and inventive energy of those members of the cast starring in the slices of political satire–Joseph Allan, Phillipa Baines, Zoe Bullock, Tim Gibson and Sarah Perry–dotted about the script. A word must also go to Milja Fenger’s direction, which is clean, sophisticated and inspired. I especially appreciate the lack of pretentious pause at the end of dramatic scenes, making the final moments of stillness in the play even more powerful.
I also applaud Milja for taking on a relatively unknown play and bringing it to the biggest venue in Oxford. It’s risky, but discovering new plays is what makes theatre most exciting. Yet it is here, with the play itself, rather than the production, that I am disappointed. The fact that I can sum up the plot line in a sentence at the beginning of this review, I think says it all. It’s the story of persecution in Nazi Germany, torn loyalties, and ultimate travesty, but its one that we have heard and seen framed in this way so many times before. I don’t deny that the period is one of immense importance and that its human cost can never be forgotten. But much has been said already, and to stand out Mephsito needed something to make us as an audience ‘sit up’. No matter how high the production values of this piece are, Mephisto doesn’t have this, and I leave the theatre moved and very much entertained, but ultimately unchanged.