Over the years Cape Town has been treated to the talent of up-and-coming actors, such as the Mechanicals, with performances of MEPHISTO under direction of Chris Weare. This year the tradition continues and it is the turn of LAMTA students to take on this weighty play. Challenging to say the least, MEPHISTO calls on every performer to grapple not only with the depth of their own theatrical commitment, but also with topics that speak to the core of human existence: Is it worth selling your soul to the devil for a little bit of fame?
The play title is linked to the character of Mephistopheles as found in German folklore as a chief devil in the legend that sees Faustus bargain for his soul. With the play penned by French playwright Ariane Mnochkine (translated by British-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker) based on the novel by Klaus Mann, MEPHISTO is a symbolic Faustian tragedy. It is wordy and heavy with imagery, testing the ambition of performers and the perseverance of the audience.
Manipulation and dark force symbolism stand at the centre of the mortal-driven soul sacrifice of the characters in Mann’s MEPHISTO as it takes the audience back to the time of Hitler’s rising and the build-up to the second world war. At the heart of the imminent trauma one finds the Peppermill Theatre’s theatrical troupe, as they grapple with issues such as political idealism, self-preservation, truth and ego.
A strong voice in this troupe is that of Otto Ulrich, the idealistic socialist who isn’t afraid to sacrifice himself for the rights and freedoms of others, emphatically portrayed by Gianluca Gironi. Otto along with Alex (played by Stuart Brown) provides the moral compass as their narrative stands in opposition of that of arrogant opportunist Hendrik Höfgen (played by Miguel de Sampaio). In contrast to the broader community informed actions of Otto, Hendrik sacrifices love, friendship and freedom in pursuit of fame in Berlin and so ruins the lives of many (and his own) as the ultimate personification of the failings of men.
Although this is a darkly troubled play there are light(er)hearted moments that provide some play-within-a-play escapism as the audience is treated to interludes where the characters rehearse politically driven satirical sketches presented with fun farcical flair. Ultimately though these are just short moments of relief as MEPHISTO does not take any prisoners in dissecting the impact of Nazi Germany on artists, effectively ending with the absence of a curtain call –the dead can’t take a bow.
Although the text, in its attempt to draw to the centre many a characters’ struggles, can come across as a bit disjointed, the sentiment of the production is clear and the cast deserves much praise for their professional and moving staging. Their words and actions are brilliantly accentuated by the design (set, lighting and costume) by Niall Griffin. The set and lighting play particularly well together in adding great depth and dimension as the story unfolds.
The LAMTA presented Mephisto is onstage at Theatre on the Bay until 2 September, with all the proper Covid-19 protocols in place. Embrace the allure of live theatre again and book your tickets a R200 per person via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .