Amadeus made the prospect of seeing the film version’s star, F Murray Abraham, on stage even more of a draw for me. So it’s a good job his performance in The Mentor lives up to expectations, because little else about Daniel Kehlmann’s play was really memorable enough to stay with me past the Vaudeville’s front doors. Kehlmann is apparently a huge name in Germany right now, and being the first to bring him to the UK are the team of translator Christopher Hampton and director Laurence Boswell, who in recent years also introduced us to Florian Zeller. And there is more of a French than German aesthetic to Polly Sullivan’s design, a country garden inside a white box, with chairs shaped like human hands as a clue that pretension is welcome here – a retreat owned by an arts charity that pairs established names with promising newcomers to develop new work.
Benjamin Rubin (Abraham) is a well-known playwright and screenwriter, although his fame rests entirely on the debut play he wrote aged 24, followed by a lifetime of work held up to that standard and found wanting. He’s been paid €10,000 to be mentor for a week to Martin (Daniel Weyman,) whose first play had a limited run and some acclaim.
Things get off to a bad start when Martin lets slip that Rubin’s mentorship wasn’t as in-demand as expected, and Martin himself had to be offered the same payment to be there. They get worse when Rubin reads his second work-in-progress and finds no redeeming features in it beyond the fact that there aren’t too many typos in the final act. This precipitates something of a crisis as it becomes apparent nobody, including his wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) has ever actually liked Martin’s writing, and it was only really the director’s work that got the praise.
So Kehlmann does seem to be making a bit of a dig at the “director’s theatre” that’s prevalent in Germany, as Martin realises the director was willing to take on any old crap script as he was only going to change everything anyway (and add a cement mixer.) The Mentor also shares a very American trait in being writing about writing, although rather than uphold the idea of there being something mystical about being a writer it essentially takes the piss out of that pretention, with both men being utterly self-involved to little real purpose. The play has fun at puncturing this self-importance but has very little else to say, meaning it ends up feeling slight and unmemorable; and in chucking in the classic piece of wish-fulfilment of a younger woman falling into bed with an older man because she’s dazzled by his talent, lurches into cliché as well.
Jonathan Cullen gets a few funny moments as the fussy charity administrator, who’s given up his own artistic ambitions to look after egos like these; although Frederick is disappointingly robotic as Gina. Abraham is a delight though, playing the monstrous Rubin with a light touch – very funny without any of the grandstanding some other big names would no doubt have brought to the part, and all the better for it. It’s just a shame he’s not over here in something a bit more substantial.
The Mentor by Daniel Kehlmann in a version by Christopher Hampton is booking until the 2nd of September at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Simon Annand.