First there was Yasmina Reza; then came Florian Zeller; now there's Daniel Kehlmann. All continental novelists and playwrights who are each given to writing pithy, witty plays, invariably running for 80-90 minutes each; and most extraordinarily coincidental of all, each finding the same English translator in Christopher Hampton. Zeller and Kehlmann have additionally both been discovered for their UK premieres by director Laurence Boswell at Bath's Ustinov studio, where The Mentor premiered in April.
Kehlmann, who is just 42, has published some ten novels so far in his native Germany; in a programme note for this UK premiere of his second play, producer Nica Burns calls him "the most famous contemporary writer in Germany," and says he is as well known there as, say, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Margaret Drabble or Tracy Chevalier.
Those literary affinities are useful in relating him to the narrow little world of the literary retreat that is portrayed here, in which a foundation awards to a senior writer to mentor a younger writer, heading towards their prime, in their next work.
The younger writer Martin Wegner, and especially his wife Gina, both have a particular admiration for the play The Long Road that the older writer Benjamin Rubin wrote when he was just 24 that turned him into a literary sensation. Unfortunately it was also the peak of his literary endeavours, and he's lived in its shadow ever since.
Now as the curmudgeonly Rubin brutally dissects Wegner's new book and declares it to be "completely dreadful," how much of it is spite and envy and how much of it is honest criticism?
Given that Rubin is played by F Murray Abraham, who won a Best Actor Oscar over 30 years ago for starring in the film version of Amadeus, there could be a similar sense of past-his-prime faded glory to the actor as the character he is playing. But in fact Abraham, who is a staple of the Broadway stage and television screen in shows like Homeland and The Good Wife, is an actor so clearly at home onstage and relishing every moment that he brings total command as well as grit to it.
He is nicely complemented by three superb English actors: Daniel Weyman as the younger writer Martin and Naomi Frederick as his wife, with Jonathan Cullen as the anxious administrator of the prize who'd rather be a painter himself.
As with Yasmina Reza's Art, a bubbly souffle of a play about different approaches to visual art and temperament amongst a group of long-term friends, The Mentor cuts below its elegant surface to provide a persuasive portrait of the price and value of criticism and whether it is constructive or not for a creative artist to receive.
What the press said...
"Abraham’s performance is intriguingly ambiguous... we’re left to wonder whether he’s darkly intellectual or in fact desperately shallow."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard