Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Theatre review: Faustus: That Damned Woman

The last time Christopher Marlowe's version of the Doctor Faustus story was seen in London, the Swanamaker cast a female lead to take the journey through knowledge to damnation, but the text remained the same one written by and for a man. For Headlong's production, which opens its tour at the Lyric Hammersmith, a new playwright takes a crack at the old story, retelling it to ask what would make a woman sell her soul in Chris Bush's Faustus: That Damned Woman. Revenge turns out to be the answer, at least as the initial spur, when in 1666 London Johanna Faustus (Jodie McNee) is obsessed with finding out the truth about her mother, who was hanged as a witch. The charge was that she signed her name in Lucifer's book of souls, and Faustus is determined to find out if this was true, even if she has to summon the devil himself to ask him. Lucifer (Barnaby Power) agrees to let her read his book, but only if she signs her own name first and damns herself.

Faustus agrees but not without getting a lot more for herself out of the bargain, including 144 years of life without aging, and almost unlimited powers, in the form of having the demon Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter) at her command.

Bush adds a new twist to the deal, as instead of travels around the world Faustus is granted the ability to travel through time – but only forwards. She asks that her 144 years be spread across any eras she chooses. After taking brutal revenge on the people who falsely accused her mother, she decides to turn the devil’s bargain against him by doing good, but finds that she’s in Literal Genie territory when she asks Mephistopheles to wipe out the plague, and he does so with the Great Fire of London. The shock causes her to make her first jump 200 years into the future, where she meets Dr Garrett (Emmanuella Cole,) the first English woman to become a qualified medical doctor, and experiences mixed emotions at the thrill of the progress women have made, and the frustration that it’s so slow.

For the rest of the story Faustus takes shorter leaps through time, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that her next leap will be the leap home educating herself as she goes and eventually adding the “Doctor” title her male counterpart has from the start, inserting herself into the scientific life of every time and helping nudge things towards the betterment of mankind. Though not without more casualties along the way – she helps Marie (Alicia Charles) and Pierre Curie (Tim Samuels) with their discoveries, but her support probably also hastens their deaths from radiation poisoning. She does seem to have got better at not causing disasters as side-effects, although there’s also an – under-explored – suggestion that Mephistopheles might have fallen in love with her, and deliberately no longer be twisting her wishes.

The fact that exactly what Mephistopheles feels for Faustus is never quite dealt with is a disappointment, especially as they’re the only two characters to have any significant stage time. Because of the lead’s travels through time and space any Faustus story is going to be prone to feeling disjointed, but it seems a particular shame that the feminist intent of Faustus’ mission – inspired by how women like her mother were abused – is allowed to fizzle out as it becomes more about helping humanity as a whole, and a late turn towards a fixation with discovering digital immortality. Caroline Byrne’s production could do with a little more variety of tone as well, but I liked Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set design of a conical, deconstructed wooden hut which feels at home in the 1660s, in limbo, and in a post-apocalyptic future; while Line Bech’s costumes keep Faustus corseted even under her more modern clothes as a metaphor for the various ways she’s trapped. Faustus: That Damned Woman is full of interesting ideas, but watching it feels like you’re always that one step away from them coming together.

Faustus: That Damned Woman by Chris Bush is booking until the 22nd of February at the Lyric Hammersmith; then continuing on tour to Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Newcastle.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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