Melissa Blease reviews The Mentor, starring F Murray Abraham, on at Ustinov Studio, Bath until Saturday 6 May
Want to know which modern writers, actors, auteurs et al will be hot next year? The Ustinov Studio’s artistic director Laurence Boswell, whose themed seasons of UK premieres in Bath have received widespread international critical acclaim over the past seven years, is probably already collaborating with them. For spring 2017, Boswell has returned to Bath to present two UK premieres of newly-translated German-language plays courtesy of two hugely celebrated playwrights. The season opened with Marius von Mayenburg’s Plastic (gone now, but not easily forgotten), and now comes The Mentor, written by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Boswell and starring the consummate ‘actor’s actor’, F Murray Abraham. Dream team? You got it.
Abraham is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as the composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film version of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, while his many and varied film credits in a career spanning five decades include John Practice in Scarface, Bernado Gui in The Name of the Rose and Old Zero Moustafa in The Grand Budapest Hotel… oh, and Ahdar Ru’afo, the leader of a nomadic alien race in Star Trek: Insurrection. His small-screen CV, meanwhile, includes memorably quirky supporting characters in series ranging from Kojak to Homeland via The Good Wife. As for theatre… well, let’s just say that Abraham hasn’t earned the title of America’s best-respected Shakespearian actor for nothing.
And now, having not trodden British boards since his Shylock at the RSC a decade ago, Abraham is in Bath for a month playing Benjamin Rubin, a playwright long since past his sell-by date, for whom the notion of being successful is now little more than a fading memory. Rubin has, however, managed to land a gig as mentor to Martin Wegner, a supposedly talented rising star who needs a bit of help with his latest script – think the playwright equivalent of Norma Desmond meets Joe Gillis, but set in the country garden of a ‘writer’s retreat’ funded by some dubious arts foundation in the present day, rather than in a shambolic mansion on LA’s Sunset Boulevard circa 1949.
Pompous yet palpably etiolated; irascible and opinionated yet somehow vulnerable, Abraham keeps the charisma and intensity turned up to 11 throughout this fast-paced 90-minute drama, with Rubin in turn either shedding layer upon layer of revelation or wrapping himself up in emotional armour, depending on the dynamics of the characters in his immediate orbit (Wegner’s dissatisfied wife Gina is in the mix too, as is the mentoring scheme’s ingratiating, sycophantic facilitator Erwin Rudicek).
Adding a further blast of characterful umami to the mix, Rubin consistently makes the kind of demands of Rudicek that one would imagine Madonna would make of the staff of a multi-starred hotel (the lengthy discourses regarding his preferred style of whisky, for example, are subtle comedic gold), which only serves to highlight the raft of insecurities on which his fragile, battered ego is precariously balanced.
But still, there’s a delectable charm about Rubin – he’s as archly witty and confident in his intellectual abilities as Wegner is gauche and insecure about his own dubious talents. Daniel Weyman as Wegner, however, admirably fights his own corner despite being increasingly bombarded by a chorus of naysayers; it would be easy to play the part of a sensitive, frustrated but ultimately over-arrogant and vainglorious artist just for laughs, but Weyman brings a sensitivity to the role of a character that, rather than becoming a figure of fun, ultimately warrants compassion.
The Mentor is a sophisticated, super-stylish, ostensibly straightforward play (two strong main characters; two well-rounded, subtly complex supporting characters; no elaborate set, scenery or props to distract from the beautifully-crafted dialogue) that both explores what happens to a formerly successful man once his spotlight has faded and captures a snapshot of a turning point in a young man’s career/marriage. Or, it’s an arts-world version of Men Behaving Badly.
Either way, it’s Boswell at his best, and Abraham at his most arresting.