The Mentor: it's all about to go wrong as the writers fall out
The Mentor: it’s all about to go wrong as the writers fall out

The Mentor. Ustinov Studio, Bath

Four frustrated arty types battled it out for the title of the most arty type of the year award in a leafy courtyard. They were: held-back Gina, ambitious Martin, has-been Rubin and arts administrator Erwin.

And it was the arts administrator (officially the least arty person there) Erwin Rudicek (Jonathan Cullen) as a frustrated artist who appeared the most honest about his work and even threw in his job to be a painter. Now that’s passion for your art.

Erwin had an unenviable task in Daniel Kelmann’s The Mentor at the Ustinov, for he had to humour two ego centric writers along as the old, very rude and arrogant Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) was supposed to be helping develop the new young writer Martin Wegner with his work. Instead he did the opposite, much to Erwin’s frustration. The young writer (Daniel Weyman) was priggish, selfish and annoyingly self-opinionated. The mentoring session was never going to work especially when Rubin discovered to his horror they were both being paid the same amount of money for the mentoring session. This was art ludicrously priced as a commercial commodity – a point well made by Kelmann.

And then there was Martin’s two dimensional wife Gina (Naomi Frederick) who after despairing of her husband holding her back in life appeared to be about to have an affair with the old, oily, egotistical, bombastic Rubin just because he was famous. Oh, and the fact her husband in a moment of self-loathing made a fool of himself by tearing up his play script and jumping in a duck pond. Grounds for a blazing row perhaps, but an affair? There was sympathy for the exasperated Erwin as he attempted to serve tea or coffee or the wrong sort of whisky to the old bore Rubin. So far, so funny and Cullen’s physical comedy with these domestic duties were well paced by the director Laurence Boswell.

The format of a set piece argument followed by a bust up and the resulting fall out was agreeably comic. As the barbs flew there were occasional sharp intakes of breath from the packed audience. Kehlmann’s script gave some enjoyable lines. Martin announces: “I’m an artist and have different standards,” when challenged by his wife about his childish antics. Guffaws all round. Then there’s his wonderfully empty and meaningless statement along the lines of: “I still want to want, what I want without wanting to want, knowing what I want, to want,” to which Rubin says sarcastically, “did you write that line?” More chuckles at the put down as Martin’s face fell. And perhaps my favourite line came from Erwin who stormed: “Who wants to be an arts bureaucrat, it’s a profession for those who are dead inside.”

Cullen was excellent, Frederick and Weyman made the grade but F Murray Abraham seemed to be almost going through the motions. He had the lines from Kehlmann but didn’t seem nasty enough for such an old so and so.

For 80 minutes it falls slightly short as a traditional drama. An interval could have prompted a what’s going to happen next moment. Instead there’s a steady increase in the two writer’s dislike of each other and although we reach a sort of climax as Martin has a break down it’s somehow not quite enough. They shy away from a punch up as Martin suggests he’d win in a fight as he goes to the gym, and we don’t see the suggested affair between a lightly sketched Gina and unlovable Rubin. For a play about writers it could have done with more of a plot and without the predictable ending – as enjoyable as it was.

Harry Mottram

The Mentor by Daniel Kehlmann, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, directed by Laurence Boswell. 6 April – 6 May 2017