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The adaptation of 'Mephisto', which had its premiere tonight at the Leidse Schouwburg, made for a thoughtful theatre experience held together by a great group of actors. Perhaps not to everyone's taste, the key to this play is Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, aimed at distancing rather than involving the audience.


Based on the controversial novel by Klaus Mann (also made into a famous film), the story follows the stellar career of actor Hendrik Höfgen (played by Huub Stapel) during the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. Made famous by his role as Mephistopheles in Goethe's 'Faust', Höfgen faces increasingly difficult moral choices in a society infected by prejudice and hate. The question is, of course, has he sold his soul to the devil?

With each of the seven actors playing several different roles, an intervening narrator and frequent play-within-play sequences and references, it all makes for very Brechtian 'theatre of alienation'. The point or punch is more dialectic than emotional, designed for discussion rather than identification.

To the credit of the actors, the play still has some powerful scenes (especially in the second half) and an uncomfortable atmosphere of impending doom pervading the action.

boy in darkness

Mervyn Peake's novella 'Boy in Darkness' is a little-known addition to the famous Gormenghast trilogy. Published (oddly enough) as a children's book, it is a sketchy but chilling horror tale in Peake's trademark gothic style.

The ceremonies were over for the day. The Boy was tired out. Ritual, like a senseless chariot, had rolled its wheels -- and the natural life of the day had been bruised and crushed.

The Boy is Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast, who yearns to escape from his boring, ritualized life. But when he runs away from the Castle, he ends up in a nightmarish outside world. Taken captive by two semi-human creatures, the Goat and the Hyena, he is brought to their master, the White Lord of Midnight.

Then came a voice from the abysmal darkness. It was like a little bell tinkling, or the sound of naked innocence, or the crowing of a babe... or the bleating of a Lamb.

'You have somebody with you, I believe?'

The little voice trilled from the darkness; it had no need to be raised. Like a needle piercing its way through rotten fabric, so this sweet sound penetrated to the furthermost recesses of the Underground Kingdom.

This satanic Lamb -- an original, disturbing twist on Christian symbolism -- conducts occult experiments on humans, of which the Goat and Hyena are the sole survivors. Blind and hateful, the Lamb has been waiting for a fresh specimen for a long time...

Then came the moment when the little finger of the Lamb's left hand moved forward like a short, white caterpillar and, hovering for a little while near the victim's forehead, finally descended, and the Boy felt a touch on his brow that brought his heart into his throat.

For the finger of the Lamb appeared to suck at the temple like the sucker of an octopus, and then as the digit traced the profile it left behind it from the hair-line to the chin a track or wake so cold that his brow contracted with pain.

And that was enough, that tracing, to teach the Lamb all that he wished to know. In one sweep of the finger he had discovered that he had in the darkness before him a thing of quality, a thing of youth and style; something of pride, of a mortal unbeasted.

(Long out of print, I finally stumbled on this rare little book on eBay -- with thanks to Stefan and his Auction Sniper.)


Master, serene
All hours
We waste, if in
The wasting them,
As in a jar,
We set flowers.

The beginning of Ricardo Reis' poem 'Mestre'. Reis was one of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa's many heteronyms. More than just pseudonyms, these were imaginary poets, each with their own style and biography, who even criticized each other. Reis is one of the most famous ones, but Pessoa reportedly created over 70 in total. In a letter, Pessoa explains the origin of his alter ego's.

(Indeed, I do not know if in reality it was they who did not exist or if it is I who does not exist. In these things, as indeed in all, we cannot afford to be dogmatic.)

Ricardo Reis, a doctor born in Porto who went into exile in Brazil, wrote metrical but unrhymed odes. Decidedly pagan (or neoclassical), his poems are sad and melancholic, marked by tranquility and resignation.

Another layer of fiction has since been added by novelist José Saramago, who in 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis' tells of Reis returning to Lisbon after the death of Pessoa. At the end of the book, Reis calmly follows Pessoa's spirit to the cemetery.

The poem ends:

Sunflowers ever
Eyeing the sun,
From life let's go
Tranquilly, not have
Even the remorse
Of having lived.

Update: See also my review of Saramago's 'The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis'

iffr: nyócker!

A fitting Friday night surprise film at the IFFR, the Hungarian animated feature 'Nyócker!' ('The District!') combines energetic and satirical entertainment, a fresh visual style and streetwise Hungarian hip-hop.

Nyócker! - 1

Set in the Eighth District of Budapest, a cultural melting pot dominated by street gangs, prostitutes and corrupt cops, the film focuses on a group of teenagers with a get-rich-fast scheme. What follows is an extravagant 'South Park'-type story moving from 'Romeo & Juliet' (Gipsy Richie and Hungarian Jules) to time travel and escalating into an international oil crisis.

Nyócker! - 2

The film makes some sharp social and political statements (mostly anti-American), both in the story and in the aggressive rap lyrics, which survive subtitling quite well if you can keep up with the fast pace.

The gov'ment throws all sorts in 'ere,
Chinese, Arab, Gypsy, queer.
Everything looks grey and brown,
Take one card out and the lot falls down.
Cash makes a dash from hand to hand,
All addin' up in a promised land.
The shit we go through ev'ry day,
It's a bitch of a game, you wanna play?

'Nyócker!' is rich in detail, unpredictable and all over the place -- and if it spins out of control at times, it just adds to the charm.

Nyócker! - 3

See also: Filmhu interview with director Áron Gauder and producer Erik Novák.