CentralDramaReview

Faustus: That Damned Woman – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Chris Bush

Director: Caroline Byrne

The story of Faust was originally written 400 years ago, and since then it has had many different retellings, in different settings and with different personality types used for the Faust character. Here, writer Chris Bush has approached the story from a female perspective – and although this is not the first time this has been done, the plot of this play certainly seems different.

It’s set initially in the 17th century, where Johanna Faustus is a woman of low birth living in London with her father, an apothecary. Her mother died when she was accused of witchcraft when Johanna was a child; now the city is in the grip of the plague and Johanna feels desperate and helpless, wanting things to change. Feeling she has nothing to lose, she summons the Devil. From then on, the story takes an unusual twist as she seems able to almost insist on what she gets on her side of the bargain, ending up as a time-traveller with Mephistopheles at her beck and call to do what she asks of him. When her attempts to protect her father by ridding London of the plague go wrong, Johanna decides to retaliate by spending the time and resources Lucifer has given her doing good.

Jodie McNee gives a high energy performance as Faustus – she prowls around the stage in a state of almost constant movement at the same time delivering a barrage of words, a stream of consciousness and thought flow almost unceasing from her character to the point where it becomes exhausting just watching her. You can’t help wishing that she’d just slow down sometimes, let us take a breath and try to catch up with what’s going on and what she’s saying. It’s powerful stuff, but just too much and leaves you feeling a bit battered.

By contrast, Danny Lee Wynter’s Mephistopheles is calm and measured with a slight campness that works well with his character. There’s strong support from Barnaby Power as Johanna’s father and the rest of the seven-strong ensemble cast who play multiple roles in a play that has female characters at its heart.

As the play progresses Johanna becomes increasingly determined to save mankind by removing the fear of heaven or hell, creating immortality of the mind. To do this she has to move further and further forward in time, doing so with increasing rapidity as we near the end, leaping ahead again before we’ve really had chance to take stock of where we are. After a recognisable 17th century first act, and an interesting 19th century section, we jump through the present and into the realms of science fiction. This is reflected in the set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita that presents a cave-like hovel for Johanna’s home, tapering away into the darkness like a tunnel which starts to open up as we move forward in time.

This is a play bursting with ideas, so many that lots of possible avenues remain unexplored in the drive forward. Johanna wants to do good and becomes ever more ambitious about what that actually means, bypassing opportunities in her aim for utopia. There are some interesting concepts here, with an alternative take on the traditional story, but is perhaps a little too much and so the story loses some of its believability in the process.

Runs until 7 March 2020

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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