Walking into a random room in St Peter’s College, where the cast of Mephisto were rehearsing, I did not really know what to expect: the last thing I expected was for the director, Milja Fenger, to ask me if I wanted to take part. Apprehensive yet curious I thought, “Why not?” and cautiously allowed myself to get a firsthand experience of the various rehearsal techniques Fenger puts her actors through. I’m not sure if I made an absolute fool of myself, but I had quite a good time when I was given the opportunity to angrily shout at one of the actors and laugh like a crazy person along with the rest of the cast. These emotional access techniques are not only there for the therapeutic reasons I obtained, they are a liberating and useful way of enabling the actors to access different emotions quickly and effectively.
Although I only witnessed a forty-five minute rehearsal and not all the cast were present, the strong bond between the actors was quite evident; the workshops Milja Fenger carried out at the early stage of the rehearsal process seem to have played a significant role in achieving this. The professionalism of the cast was another element that stood out to me, but given the director’s considerable amount of experience it is not that surprising: currently a mature student reading Human Sciences at Harris Manchester, Fenger has already graduated from the East 15 Acting School, been accepted onto the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Program and her short film, The Road Home, has just been shortlisted for Best Short Film at this year’s Oscars. So the daunting task of directing a show for the Oxford Playhouse pales in comparison to what she has already accomplished.
Based on the true story, Mephisto is a theatrical adaptation of the novel of the same name by Klaus Mann that tells the story of the Hamburg theatre company in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. The company is comprised of people with conflicting political beliefs and combined with the growing imminent danger instilled by the Nazi party’s rise to power, drama ensues: “As the play is a devised piece, it flows beautifully like a river and despite the serious subject matter the play is exciting: it takes place within a time of great despair and extreme joy.”
The spontaneity that is required for a truly realistic display of human behaviour can only really be achieved by allowing the actors to come up with physical and vocal choices on each performance, that are entirely different every night. It is a frightening notion for most actors and directors, because it is easier to go for the safe option which can lead to staleness but Fenger is a true advocate of performance choice: “I never allow the actors to do the same thing twice, sometimes I have to be mean and make the actors repeat the scene until they do it differently. Actors generally want to be safe but it opens them up to different choices and enables them to let go of their fears.”
Milja Fenger seems to really know what she is doing and this promises to be an accomplished production, but what will really make it stand out from all the rest? “What lacks in Oxford plays is an expression of true emotion, but our production stands out in that the actors will actually lay bare with real feelings. Our aim is not just to show off and entertain: we have something important to say.” Well, after that guarantee one can only that people will indeed listen to what they have to say.
Mephisto will be playing at the Oxford Playhouse in 6th week