Mephisto [A Rhapsody]: A play that questions the responsibility of the artist
By Kaleya Baxe, Assistant Director
Week 2 of rehearsals. 9am.
I get on a surprisingly empty carriage on the tube, something that is unusual for this time at rush hour. I sit. I notice the man opposite me. I pull out my script, beginning to fulfill my task of checking for script changes in the new draft. I notice that no one is sitting either side of me or the man opposite. I read:
‘…we’re back in the 19th century, facing fundamental questions. Endemic poverty. The rich are ridiculously rich. The poor get poorer and poorer…’
I notice the smell of the man opposite. He is homeless. I notice a woman enter the carriage and sit next to the man. Almost immediately, she pulls a grimace and gets up with a vicious side eye in his direction whilst scoffing loudly enough for the whole carriage to hear. She changes carriage at the next station. I read:
‘…We’d like to do something about it, but we’re all sensitive and we know we have no place in the world that’s coming. So we just feel gently sorry for ourselves…’
I do my reading, I note the changes, I get off at my stop and enter the rehearsal room to discuss how awful the proroguing of parliament is amongst the other hot topics on the awful state of our political climate. I moan, complain, and mention nothing of the man on the tube.
Mephisto [A Rhapsody] is a play about a group of actors from a theatre choosing how to respond to the ever-growing presence of the far right in their regional town.
‘This play isn’t one that allows us to pretend we’re not theatre-makers making a show about what artists do in a hostile political climate’ says director Kirsty Housley. And she’s right, as every day the script asks us to question ourselves in new ways.
An actor adds, ‘If there are protests during our run, is continuing to do the show the right thing? I don’t want to be on stage smiling and pretending I’m a character, I want to be at the Gate Theatre every night as me saying look, this is the choice I’ve made: to be here every night performing a play about the rise of the far right’. In the rehearsal room we are all complicit. We’re not sure whether it’s the right choice, but we’re not shying away from being honest about our role as artists.
So, in this play we hide nothing. Expect to see the actors behind the characters, the character and costume changes; the stage managers assisting the actors with props, microphones and operating the show. This meta approach is less an edgy, stylistic choice (although it admittedly creates quite a cool effect!), but rather a necessity to reveal the play’s analysis and critique of the current artist. Be prepared to encounter the narcissistic actor, the one who believes theatre can change the world and the culturally ill-informed; the Artistic Director who refuses to put on anything too political and the racist misogynistic theatre critic (a personal favourite of mine). Be prepared to cry tears of laughter, be completely wowed yet simultaneously saddened by the state of things.
‘…we rock back and forth and cry on the shoulders of our friends, grappling with this devastating question: ‘Could life have been different? Or does it have to be like this?’
Mephisto [A Rhapsody] will play at the Gate Theatre from 3 – 26 Oct. Book now.