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  • Helen Rutherford-Gregory

Faustus: That Damned Woman - Review

"I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil."

Tackling some pretty intense themes, Chris Bush's reimagining of Dr Faustus, the Elizabethan tragedy by Marlowe, replaces the titular character with a woman. It's not quite a straight swap though. The story takes a very new form. Doctor Faustus is essentially a play about a man who is willing to accept a fate of eternal damnation in a desperate thirst to step beyond his academia into a world of magic.

The retelling at Storyhouse saw Johanna Faustus seek to understand whether her mother, murdered for being a witch, was truly in cahoots with Lucifer, as her murderers claimed. The answer to the question comes at a cost and Joanna bargains for more, gaining the power to time travel, unaged, forward only, for 144 years and whip up magical whims with the aid of Mephistopheles, the equivalent of Aladdin's genie. At the end of her 144 years she would then return to Lucifer and eternal damnation paying the price for her life and her knowledge.

As Faustus settles into her powers and jumps forward in time we see her impatience, her disappointment at the speed of advancement of the female sex, her desperation to find a magical way to live forever, her thirst for knowledge and even her egotistical side.

The set was cleverly utilised as is always the case when Storyhouse uses its 500 seater thrust stage. The audience wraps around the stage and the actors emerge onto it along walkways that move through the audience. It's a very intimate setting yet open and vast at the same time because of the height and depth of the stage. I'm always pleased when I enter the theatre and it's set up this way. It's a real treat to feel like you're almost part of the show.

The play attempts in places to tackle issues that it really doesn't have the time or space in the story to get into. I felt myself contemplating consumerism, addiction, magic, innocence, redemption, religion, ambition, fate, feminism and legacy. It was thought provoking for sure but which thoughts it was trying to provoke? The soliloquies, whilst excellently performed, didn't clearly deliver that lasting moral question to contemplate in the car on the way home. That one central theme.

I expected more dance from the performance (im not sure why) but the movement that was in the show was deliberate and interpretive. It resulted in something quite uniquely beautiful on stage. In the bleakness of the content of the play, the visuals were a much needed feast for the eyes.

At times I found costumes were distracting. The pink ribbons the actors would play with didn't make any sense to me. The modern jeans and nifty desert boots worn by Johanna's father, an apothecary during the plague were a little jarring and lifted me out of the show.

Whilst I thought every women who played the part was individually excellent, I wish Mephistopheles had been played by one actor, as Johanna was. With such a small cast doubling up on parts, that was an unnecessary distraction.

There were a number of themes to this show which could be upsetting. At times, the knives and cutting on stage looked real and made me wince. The hanging in the first minutes of the play was a visual kick in the gut. The actions of the Doctor and suggestions of rape were disturbing and there was little relief from the heaviness of this play.

Be prepared for a brutal journey when or if you go to see this telling of Faustus. It will take you to places you really never expect it to go and release you from the theatre feeling emotionally wrung-out. It pushed everything to the edge, to the limits, or more apt, Johanna Faustus and her hunger for life did.

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