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Faustus: That Damned Woman at The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre | Review

Jodie McNee in Faustus That Damned Woman c Manuel Harlan.
Jodie McNee in Faustus That Damned Woman c Manuel Harlan.

Chris Bush’s take on Christopher Marlowe’s classic deal-with-the-devil tale feels like a speculative fiction sequel to The Crucible infused with equal measures of Kill Bill and Doctor Who. Like a Heston Blumenthal concoction, the mixture may be a little forced and the cultural cues somewhat heavy-handed, but the experience is actually quite pleasing – in part for its ambition and in part for its fidelity to one of the most essentially dramatic stories available. However, Caroline Byrne’s production of Faustus That Damned Woman owes much of its theatrical lift-off to the talent of Jodie McNee, whose electrifying portrayal of this Faustus schools many a tragic soul-seller. (She puts Jude Law’s 2002 Young Vic rendering of the role in the shade, for example.)

Playwright Bush grabs an interesting and essential question at the heart of this fable: what could motivate someone to sell their soul to the devil? With a credible and emotive McGuffin, we are on our way deep into the heart of revenge tragedy with reminders of the ubiquity of cruelty and mob mentality. Byrne’s direction is pacey. Set designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita builds a textured, complicated and hypnotising world that finds the overlaps between damnation, seduction and delusion. Indeed, the entire creative team creates an impressive and compelling ambience with useful versatility between moods and moments.

Unlike most productions or versions of Dr Faustus, in Bush’s play, the devil doesn’t get all the best lines. Artfully, we find ourselves believing Johanna Faustus when she explains that, in the world of impoverished 17th century English women, ‘the devil is a catch’. And with a time-travelling and time-limited conceit, we are off through the ages to contemplate what is sin and what is progress whilst experiencing the inevitability of unintended consequences. Bush’s double examination of what would be the best (or least bad) reason to do a deal with the devil and, given such a deal cannot be annulled, what is the best thing you could do with that position even if you regretted it and repented, offers many fascinating dramatic and philosophical opportunities. In these questions, she complements Marlowe and Goethe and enhances the diabolical pact canon.

Whilst Bush deserves kudos for the complicated and conflicted drawing of her female Faustus, neither the playwright nor the director has applied the same philosophical or theatrical rigour to their Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter). With one of the best backstories in western civilisation (with built-in dramatic reversal!), this production opts to give us no more than a pantomime villain. Beside the wonderfully rich complexity of the conflicted and infuriating Faustus, it is a missed opportunity to make her satanic agent so one-dimensional. And why is a character who is shorthand for evil played as camp in a classic (unconfronted) queer-coded fashion? Has the devil got your tongue? The richness of the central characterisation of Faustus is not matched by the sketchier nature of other characters or indeed certain plotlines and resolution elsewhere in the play.

This play is not perfect but its mood and manner are intriguing and thought-provoking. Whilst its homage to the Elizabethan masterpiece is obvious, Faustus That Damned Woman is not simply a gender-flipped production of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Bush’s play is distinct and offers an accessible, but not simplistic, point of reference; you don’t have to be a fan (or even aware of) Marlowe to enjoy it. The production is never boring even if there are moments that may niggle. For those who worry ‘re-tellings’ are woke sermons in disguise, fear not: this play can stand on its own dramatic bone structure, although I would like to see the other half of the stage developed with the same gusto as the titular character. Jodie McNee is a theatrical force to behold and if for no other reason, she is worth watching.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Headlong and the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre today announced Faustus: That Damned Woman a new play from award-winning playwright and theatre-maker Chris Bush (Standing at the Sky’s Edge) which will premiere at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in January 2020 and at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in February 2020 before touring the UK.

Drawing on the works of Marlowe, Goethe, and other versions of the Faustus myth, Chris’s urgent reimagining asks what we must sacrifice to achieve greatness and the legacy that we leave behind.

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.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is the first work to be commissioned as part of Headlong and the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre’s long-term commitment to commissioning and producing work of scale by women playwrights.

Caroline Byrne directs this radical new work in which the iconic character of Faustus is reimagined as a woman who makes the ultimate sacrifice to traverse centuries and change the course of history. The creative team are set designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, costume designer Line Bech, lighting designer Richard Howell, sound and composition designer Giles Thomas, video and projection designer Ian William Galloway and casting director Annelie Powell CDG.

CREATIVE TEAM
Writer – Chris Bush
Director – Caroline Byrne
Set Design – Ana Inés Jabares-Pita
Costume Design – Line Bech
Lighting Designer – Richard Howell
Composer and Sound Designer – Giles Thomas
Video Designer – Ian William Galloway
Casting Director – Annelie Powell CDG
Movement Director – Shelley Maxwell
Associate Director – Ebenezer Bamgboye

CAST
Johanna Faustus – Jodie McNee
Mephistopheles – Danny Lee Wynter
Father and Lucifer – Barnaby Power
Katherine, Dr Garrett and Isobel – Emmanuella Cole
Cornelia, Jenn and Alice – Katherine Carlton
Violet and Marie – Alicia Charles
Newbury, Judge and Pierre – Tim Samuels

LISTINGS
FAUSTUS: THAT DAMNED WOMAN
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Square, King St, Hammersmith, London W6 0QL
22 January – 22 February 2020
Lyric Hammersmith Tickets
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Centenary Square, Birmingham B1 2EP
26 February – 7 March, 2020
https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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