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Dissension and collaboration

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to mephisto1

Jesse Kate Kramer

WELL-MATCHED: Sophie Kirsch as Carola Martin and Cameron Robertson as Otto Ulrich

Mephisto

Director: Christopher Weare

Cast: Students of the UCT Drama Department

Venue: The Arena,

Until: April 11

Rating: ***

AN Impressive ensemble from the 20-strong cast performing Ariane Mnouchkine’s thought-provoking play Mephisto makes this UCT production a worthwhile experience.

The Arena’s intimate space conduces to audience involvement; although there is no direct participation from spectators, the intensity (both emotional and intellectual) of the subject matter inevitably engages those attending the show to a degree bordering on discomfort.

Peter Krummeck’s well-devised set has lost none of its versatility asa vehicle for multiple scene changes, efficiently and unobtrusively carried out by the cast themselves as the action switches from theatre to dressing room to restaurant to private home, with occasional exchanges on a railway bridge spanning the stage.

In Mephisto we have the issue of dissension versus collaboration in the face of increasingly repressive government, and the period chosen for exploring this theme is, appropriately, the run-up to Hitler’s Third Reich. The action starts in 1923, tracing the fortunes of people involved in theatre, and ends at the point where freedom of artistic expression, like most of the characters, is dead.

A strong point of this production is the sense of foreboding that it generates, starting with the glare of spotlights sweeping stage and audience alike (reminiscent of the lights raking over concentration camps in World War II); there is no place to hide, and there are no comfort zones. Nor, as the action evolves, is there much prospect of salvation: as one of the characters bleakly remarks, “You can’t take all of Germany into exile.”

Another strength is the sense of period, with close attention paid to details of costume and props; although the subject has universal resonance, it gains dramatic force from the historical context in which it is placed.

Inevitably in a work of this length and complexity, there are occasional longueurs, moments when the pace slackens and attention wanders, but they are not frequent enough to impair the play’s intensity.

In such a large, well-matched cast, individual performances tend to disappear into the general ensemble. However, David Viviers’ portrayal of Hendrik, tense as a taut wire, stands out, as does Jazzara Jaslyn’s intelligent reading of Erika. Also noteworthy is Sophie Kirsch, suitably glamorous as Carola Martin.

There is much in this play to exercise the mind, and Mephisto is well served by committed acting and sound direction.

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