The story of Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil in return for wisdom and power, has fascinated humanity since it first arose in the 16th century.
Marlowe and Goethe are amongst the famous authors to have given their own interpretation of the legend. It has been used as a vehicle to condemn science, Calvinism and any deviation from the path of moral righteousness (think about how we use the adjective ‘Faustian’ to refer to politicians and celebrities). In the hands of writer Chris Bush, a gender reversal of the main character turns it into an extended piece of agitprop about the oppression of women across the ages.
Living in plague-ridden London in 1665, Johanna Faustus (Jodie McNee) is consumed by the fact that her mother was burned as a witch, accused of signing her soul over to the Devil. Desperate to know the truth, Faustus summons Lucifer (Barnaby Power) and his sidekick Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter) and agrees to surrender her soul in return for the opportunity to know, once and for all, whether her mother really did do a pact with the Horned One.
As a rider to the contract, she also gets 144 years of life, the ability to travel through time, and the services of Mephistopheles. Once endowed with Mephistophelian superpowers, Johanna is transformed into a avenging angel, a feminist Deadpool.
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Bush’s approach to reformulating the Faustus legend is encapsulated in her decision to reassign to Faustus the line which Marlowe gives to Mephistopheles: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Life as a woman is hell, and even a deal with the Devil has got to be a step up. So, instead of the traditional Faustian tale of (masculine) self-indulgence and satiation, this Faustus sets out to use her powers to advance the position of women.
On her travels she meets Elizabeth Garrett (shorn of her patriarchal Anderson), the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician, and Marie Curie. Realising that these women are showing that sisters can already do it for themselves without the need for demonic assistance, Johanna’s focus switches to the idea of separating the soul from the body – possibly as a way of getting out of her diabolical deal – which leads us into the realm of ultra-high-tech and uploaded consciousness. This is a quest in which she ultimately succeeds – albeit with a devilish twist.
The problem with Bush’s piece is that it is unadventurous. It explores so little, and says what it wants to say loudly and repeatedly. It’s not quite the Ladybird Book of Female Oppression, but it definitely feels like a one-message piece. Mephistopheles is reduced to a mere tool, a camp dandy who serves little more narrative purpose than Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver.
Wynter has some great comic lines which he delivers well, but there is no flesh on the bones of this fallen angel. The same goes for Garrett and Curie – they feel like plot devices rather than living, breathing women. And McNee’s Faustus, while well-delivered and passionate, spends the entire evening on the same enraged, embittered tone. She does not grow or develop – she starts angry, ends angry, and is mostly angry in between.
Despite the glories of Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set, which fills the depths of the Old Vic stage, this feels like a studio piece that has accidentally ended up in the main house. It has a simple message – too simple for the time and effort that goes into delivering it.
A feminist reimagining of Faustus is a great idea – it’s just a shame that the writer didn’t do more with it.
Faustus: That Damned Woman continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, March 21. For more info and to book tickets, visit bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/faustus-that-damned-woman