For reasons which are entirely unclear, The Mentor has transferred from Bath to the West End. F Murray Abraham stars but leaves no great impression. It’s a production with little to recommend it, alas, and no one associated with it has their reputation enhanced by the association.
Many questions spring to mind during the seemingly unending 80 minutes of Laurence Boswell’s production of Daniel Kehlmann’s The Mentor (translated by Christopher Hampton) which is now unaccountably playing at The Vaudeville Theatre in the West End.
The first is a mild thought about whether or not Hampton thought that translating Kenlmann would bring him the same rewards as his translations of the work of Florian Zeller. The answer is a resounding No – and this despite the fact that Kehlmann is a best selling author in his German homeland, outselling J K Rowling amongst others.
The second concerns why F Murray Abraham would have bothered with the piece. His role as an ageing writer resting on his laurels, an elder statesman of the literary world, full of piss and vinegar as well as pretentious, tendentious rhetoric, is not exactly challenging but it is a role he can, and does, easily play. His character, Benjamin Rubin, gets involved in a mentoring programme for money, and no doubt that has been the motivator for Abraham too. Sadly.
The third is more pressing – are there really no suitably majestic British actors who might have played this part? Apart from anything else, Abrahams’ American accent roots his character as an outsider and makes the audience feel differently about him as a result. But surely Malcolm Sinclair could have played this part with his hands tied behind his back, and probably more effectively. It’s not hard to think of any number of very talented older British actors who could have played this part just as well, if not better, than Abraham.
The fourth focuses on Dave Price’s intrusive and irritating jingle-jangly incidental music. It’s insistent perkiness suggests a frothy comedy, not a satire – or farce perhaps? – about intellectual pretensions.
The fifth question is about the rest of the cast. None really pass mustard. Or even ketchup. A duller, more resolutely tiresome trio it is hard to imagine. Partly this is down to the writing, partly to Boswell’s flat direction, and partly to the shadow cast by Abraham. It is also, inevitably, down to the talents of the three – Daniel Weyman, Naomi Frederick and Jonathan Cullen – being unequal to the task here.
To be properly effective as Rubin, Abraham needs to be challenged and tested by the other three. But Boswell makes the play about Abraham and diminishes proceedings accordingly.
Polly Sullivan’s set is simple but effective. A cherry blossom tree is centre stage and evocative. Some hideous sculpture chairs speak volumes about the Arts organisation that sponsors the mentoring programme that brings Rubin in contact with Weyman’s Wegner, a writer whose work is dismissed as excruciating/excremental/excoriating by the great Rubin. Given the words Wegner speaks, that his writing is putrid seems no great leap.
Costumes are bizarre. Abraham looks as though he has taken fashion tips from Roger Delgado’s Master from Doctor Who circa 1972. Cullen has a costume more hideous than his character; Arts Administrators should think about protesting. Weyman’s appearance post frog-pond frolic is laughable but not funny.
And those frogs! Noisy ones. A lot of chat about Speyside whiskey keeps their hiccuping in perspective. A lot of mindless sounds.
Members of the Press Night audience, well some at least, made great efforts to laugh loudly, but truly there was not much funny about The Mentor. And no one was laughing at the skin-crawling section where the audience was asked to accept that Rubin might conceivably have seduced Wegner’s wife. (That section was enough to make you wish that men were forbidden from writing any more plays. Ever.)
But the biggest question was this : how can something so dull and pedestrian be worthy of a berth at a West End theatre?
There may be something worthwhile in The Mentor, but this production, even with the dubious presence of Abraham, feline and commanding as ever, does nothing to explain what that is.