The lure of immortality has been at the heart of the Faustus legend for centuries and its themes speak to the greed and despicable nature of a man who would sell his soul for so little. But is human nature so easily derided, can a bad deed in fact be used for good, or at least to clear the innocent? Chris Bush’s new version of this ages-old story reimagines Faustus not just as a woman – which has of course been done before – but couches it in the context of witchcraft, plague and the limited promise of Restoration England for the very poorest in society.
Bush’s choices upend the play to a considerable but psychologically satisfying extent, giving Johanna Faustus a true purpose and agency in selling her soul. The action begins with the stage being set for a ritualistic act in which our protagonist is plunged into water in order to see the final moments of her mother’s life, a brutal trial for supposed witchcraft in which her guilt is, of course, already assured by the men examining her. The young Johanna, appalled by her mother’s treatment, still retains a shred of doubt as to her guilt and must satisfy herself on whether she truly worked for the devil.
It is an interesting and well-realised perspective, giving the story a firm context that adds a new depth and purpose to a familiar tale, and in opening-up the female experience of this era it reinforces the decision to switch the gender of the central character – noting subtly that a male and female Faustus would have experienced this century very differently. For this is an era of active persecution for women, a pre-scientific age still dominated by religion where suspicion was easily fed. Director Caroline Byrne creates a sense of the inexplicable particularly well as magic and fear of devilment possess a community.
The doubt which lingers in Johanna’s mind feeds a determination to find proof, a fascination with progress, knowledge and using invention to defeat the idea of the devil, a concept which feeds through the rest of the play. And here in the first Act, the exploration of female powerlessness and supposed culpability is well executed as Bush leads Faustus to the door of a man who desperately wants the devil to appear and uses the female body in various unseemly and thankfully unseen ways to entice Satan to his door where he hopes to exchange his soul for the riches he craves.
That Johanna enters this man’s employ of her own volition and in the full knowledge of his practices suggests she holds few allusions about her own sinful tendencies and this is vital to the duality of the Faustus character in the remainder of the play where determination to do good is scuttled by an essential human weakness as she plots to outmaneuver her hellish master. Likewise, the scene in which Johanna eventually contracts her future is staged as a richly discussed bargain, where Johanna is not foolish enough to give away her essence merely to be sure of her mother’s purity but, like Marlowe’s original, this Faustus also has designs on immortality of a kind.
Bush’s writing in the first half is at its strongest, the contextual information that sets the scene so particularly in 1665 with plague raging and Enlightenment thinking a century ahead grounds Faustus: That Damned Woman and gives its central character a fierce yet historically credible purpose. And the skill with which Bush subtly unpicks and lays bare the attitude towards and the limited opportunities available to women in the Seventeenth-Century is very well achieved, examining the semi-religious notions of Eve’s temptation and the inherently sinful nature of seductive women that were commonly espoused in the literature of this period.
The evident fear and secrecy of the country women who rally to Johanna while protecting her gift as well themselves from detection, and her father’s distrustful warnings about creating medicines from plants once the pair decamp to London for fear of accusation add texture to the play, making sense of and adding justifiable reasoning to Johanna’s determination to summon the devil while seeking to know what better life he offers.
Alas for Faustus, and for the audience, Act Two does not bring the satisfaction we crave and the carefully cultivated intensity of the early scenes is lost in time-travelling confusion as Bush’s scope expands. Much of the second Act focuses on her attempt to achieve her ambition of planting the seeds for good and as Johanna is granted 144 years of further life to be taken at any time, Mephistopheles takes Faustus first two hundred years into the future and then much further. These rapidly changing period settings make the remainder of the play feel less substantial in its attempts to chart both the progress of science – allowing Faustus to achieve the Doctor moniker and pursue a means of cheating death for all of humanity – and the changing position of women since her original era, such that better women than Johanna have used the gifts of intelligence and persistence to earn a place in society without selling their souls.
These rather pointed statements are jarring however, far less delicately woven into the fabric of the play as they were in the sections set in the 1660s. So the encounter with the Britain’s first female medic Dr Garret in the 1860s and later with Marie Curie who she lectures on sharing the spotlight with her husband while despairing the slow advance of women feel clunky and unnatural compared to what has gone before. Later still, the science-fiction influence of the modern day and beyond are imaginative in their consideration of how Faustus may attempt to defeat her fate but somehow feel conceptually empty, merely dress-up reinforced by Johanna’s changing costumes to mark the transition from era to era. The atmospheric drive of Act One is lost amidst conversations that feel diminished just at the point where stakes should be higher and higher as time runs out.
None of this should detract from the vigor and commitment of Jodie McNee’s leading performance that burns with energy from her first entry onto the stage. She is every bit the complex and intriguing Faustus whose righteous outrage for her mother is ever contrasted by her failures to accept her lot or to behave as men expect. It is a hugely enjoyable performance to watch as McNee’s Faustus takes purposeful command of her life in the Seventeenth-Century, refusing to believe that her own free will is entirely at Lucifer’s disposal.
There is a wonderful bloodthirstiness that consumes this Faustus as her powers are first realised, setting out for vengeance against those who have crossed her family, but McNee is particularly adept at showing the strain and befuddlement of good deeds gone wrong, aware of how entirely the devil will interfer, so as the centuries pass away, Faustus becomes consumed by her bigger plans, the effort of which starts to take its toll on her physical and mental stamina, developing a fatigue in McNee’s layered performance that does much to hold together the wayward second half.
The secondary cast work hard in a variety of roles that help to create the intensity of the first Act as well as the time-hopping nature of the rest. Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles and Barnaby Power as Lucifer take a high camp approach to their respective roles, a heavy dose of the dandy that earns some laughs. And while their initial appearance momentarily breaks the atmosphere of solemnity with which the first scenes are played, Wynter develops a wary resignation as the servant resentfully forced to help Faustus while fatalistically knowing her struggle against the devil to be hopeless. Having Lucifer and Johanna’s father played by the same actor wants to add a dimension that could be better explored, and while the play tends to portray men as weak creatures -Tim Samuels is suitably detestable as Faustus’s employer Newbury – Faustus’s devotion to her father yields little insight into his role (and therefore that of the devil) in her mother’s demise and Johanna’s own temptation.
Emmanuella Cole is especially good as the betrayed Katherine, wretchedly tortured in the opening moments of the play that sets the scene well for what follows. Katherine Carlton and Alicia Charles complete the cast, having more success with the small but better written roles of the village women who help prepare Johanna’s original ritual, later conveying their fear as they pretend not to know her, than in the more diluted characterisations given to them in the Twentieth and Twenty-first century scenes.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set design is marvelously inventive, a curved skeletal wall that looks as suitable for the wooden homes of the 1660s as it does for the more futuristic settings later in the play. Its flexibility is enhanced by Ian William Galloway’s video design which projects pattern and texture including what appears to be the inky form of a devilish shadow, and later helps Faustus to rapidly absorb a visual history of the years through which she lives.
The exploration of the black arts and the role of women which so meaningful ties Act One together are lost in the second half where the focus switches entirely to a quest for science to grant eternal life, and although Faustus’s 144-years of life must take her into the future, the loss of that carefully conjured 1660s setting is sadly missed. Doctor Faustus is a play that continues to intrigue us with its tantalising propositions of heaven, hell and immortality – see also last year’s Dark Night of the Soul evenings of female responses to Marlowe’s work – so it is really interesting to see it reimagined with such purpose here by Chris Bush, and by adding the specifically female context of witchcraft it expands Marlowe’s tale to make sense of its re-gendered protagonist. But eventually every Faustus must concede the inevitability and invincibility of death, and whether you give your soul to God or the devil no science or magic can bring eternal life.