The Mentor at the Vaudeville Theatre
Artistic director Laurence Boswell continues to swim against Brexit currents as he carries forward his quest to introduce successful European playwrights to the UK. After acquainting audiences with French talent Florian Zeller, Boswell now presents German playwright Daniel Kehlmann, best known for his career as a novelist and his best-selling story Measuring The World. These new voices from overseas feel like a breath of fresh air and yet they partly assume a British quality thanks to translator Christopher Hampton (a writer himself) and his ability to tune the language into a perfectly flowing stream of witty dialogues that feels both natural and original.
Still, most people will perhaps find the most exciting element about The Mentor to be F Murray Abraham’s return to the British stage after a long absence, and they will certainly not be disappointed. Oozing grace and charisma from beginning to end, he shines when the play is at its most brilliant, and carries the piece forward when it slackens for want of tension. Dealing with rivalry and mediocrity in the creative realm (themes that call to mind Shaffer’s Amadeus and the role that earned Abraham an Academy Award), The Mentor adopts a satirical tone to expose the petty issues surrounding artistic recognition.
Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) is a renowned playwright still living off the fame of a play he wrote early in his career. He decides to take part in a five-day mentoring program that requires him to oversee the work of young talent Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman), but it soon transpires that both were drawn to the project for the financial profit alone. A war of egos ensues with both writers clinging to every scrap of positive feedback ever received, revealing an immaturity that is at odds with the intended spirit of the scheme, with artistic pursuits in general, and with the idyllic setting (a beautiful garden, with a cherry tree at centre stage).
The play’s tongue-in-cheek tone subtly delivers a number of philosophical questions about the relativity of artistic taste and the double-edged sword of success. The short running time does not allow for a deeper contemplation of these points and the conflict between the protagonists itself could do with a stronger and steadier crescendo. Two supporting characters (Wegner’s wife and an art administrator) become the frustrated observers that enhance the absurdity of the writers’ behaviour with their presence alone.
While The Mentor is not fully satisfying, it is elevated considerably by its intriguing themes, entertaining dialogues and the immense presence of F Abraham Murray, whose performance alone makes the production outstanding.