Faustus: That Damned Woman (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)

Posted: January 31, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Chris Bush      Director: Caroline Byrne


The German myth of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the Devil in return for worldly power and riches, has been dramatised many times and in many forms, including plays by Christopher Marlow and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Chris Bush’s new version, premiering here in a co-production with Headlong, has the twist of making the central character a woman and why not? Women can be as devilish as men can’t they?

Done well, gender switches can energise classics by bringing in fresh ideas and perspectives. Certainly Bush is not short of ideas, but she proves to be less assured in knowing where to take them. We find Johanna Faustus (Jodie McNee), daughter of an apothecary, in London in the 1660s. Her mother has been hanged for witchcraft and she vows to gain revenge. Up pop Lucifer (Barnaby Power) and his sidekick, Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Winter), both looking as if they could have been left behind after last month’s pantomime here, and Johanna’s wishes are granted for the eventual price of eternal damnation.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s imposing set design has the took of a large grey tunnel and we have to assume that it is leading to the Underworld. Its scale fits director Carolyn Byrne’s staging, which is never knowingly underacted and never intentionally humorous. The general air is one of hysteria, which is right for a first act that conforms generally with the original myth, but jars when Bush takes the plot in wholly different directions,

Johanna sets off, chaperoned by Mephistopheles, and slaughters a few nasties for vengeance, but it all starts to go wrong for her when she unwittingly ignites the Great Fire of London. In remorse, she decides to use her newly-acquired powers for the benefit of humanity and becomes less like the original Faust than the current Doctor Who, travelling through time at will. 

Fast-forward 200 years and Johanna meets Britain’s only female doctor (Emmanuella Cole), qualifies as a doctor herself and chats on equal terms about medicine with Marie Curie (Alicia Charles). Moving on, McNee seems a great deal more comfortable in the role of a modern professional woman than as a 17th Century victim and she lectures about “digital immortality”, aiming for a world without death. Has the writer really thought that one through?

Revenge, along with greed and power, is a credible Faustian motive, but, when Johanna’s ambitions become altruistic, the logic is dubious, leading to a second act that is packed with diffuse ideas. The writer seems to be saying that the Devil, as commonly perceived, is a force for good and even recurring pleas for justice for women are undermined. If 17th Century witch hunts represented male oppressors persecuting innocent women, Johanna’s pact with the Devil only suggests that male suspicions were justified. Inconsistencies and contradictions such as this result in relevant feminist messages feeling out of place.

A first half of Gothic melodrama and a second half of Doctor Who-style fantasy do not knit together well in Byrne’s uneven production and the play fails to offer a drama that is sufficiently compelling to engage the audience fully in Bush’s ideas. If the Devil turns up here, he (or she) will have trouble in finding a soul to make a bid for.

Performance date: 29 January 2020

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