Thursday, 12 March 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman

"My name is Johanna Faustus. I was born almost four hundred years ago.
I gave my soul to achieve the impossible.
I watched this city grow sick and I swore to heal it.
I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil.”

In this strident new production of Faustus, the Headlong Theatre Company and writer Chris Bush have re-imagined the story with a female Faustus (played with astonishing certainty by the very talented Jodie McNee) and put a feminist twist on the whole thing. Currently being performed at Bristol Old Vic, Faustus: That Damned Woman is an engaging production that will definitely make you think. 

The set by Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita hits you first. As you take your seat in the auditorium, you look up and see an enormous shell-like, cave-like abyss, tunneling back into the very bowels of the Old Vic. It is extremely effective. And later on, it becomes somewhere for the cast to hide, seek shelter, emerge from and for the audiences to see assorted images projected as we follow Johanna Faustus’ story.

In these times of cornoavirus-infused uncertainty, the story of a society battling the plague is remarkably prescient. Johanna is seeking information about her mother who was killed for being a witch, when in reality she was merely a herbalist. Brought up by her apothecary father, Johanna wants knowledge about her mother, about medicine, about how to combat the threat of plague and about how to succeed as a woman. 

She strikes a deal with the devil (Barnaby Power). In exchange for a glance in his book of the dead to see if her mother really was a witch, she promises to give the devil her soul for all eternity… just as soon as she has completed her 144 years of life. Those being 144 years when she doesn’t age, needs no sleep and can fast forward (but not backwards) through time to whatever era she chooses. All in the pursuit of knowledge. And all with the devil’s servant Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter in sterling slime-ball mode) by her side, trying to trip her up.

Hoping to beat the devil at his own game, Faustus wants to cure disease, empower women and prove that good can triumph over evil. She meets medical pioneers including Marie Curie and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose presence brings an extra layer of meaning to the production (aided by strong performances by Alicia Charles and Emannuella Cole). She is haunted by the torture her mother endured, which Faustus witnesses via supernatural methods. 

But ultimately, does any of this do Johanna Faustus or womankind in general any good? That is for the audience to decide. 

Faustus: That Damned Woman is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 21 March. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

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