Michael Gow has not so much adapted Marlowe’s and Goethe’s pre-existing Faustus texts as editorialised them with a whole range of other western cultural materials – poetry, drama, music, song and film. He’s woven them together with his own words into a contemporary take on the man who bargains his soul away to the devil in exchange for power and youth.
Gow directs this new play in a highly theatrical realisation that calls upon all the traditions of story-telling: mask, puppetry, song, and multiple role-playing by the ensemble. It’s absolutely 21st century theatre, but this production retains the earthy flavour and naiveté of the medieval theatre’s Morality plays and their lively playing out of the forces of good and evil in the world.
Apparently the devils, imps and vice figures were hugely popular in these early pieces, and so it is here. From the outset we know it’s not going to be a good ending for Faustus (Ben Winspear) but rather his sparring with Mephistophilis (John Bell) and the journey along the way to Hell’s Mouth that will provide the thrills for an audience.
With design by Jonathon Oxlade and lighting by Jason Glenwright the playing space fills the main stage of the Brisbane Powerhouse. Production design supports a range of theatrical delights which include Phil Slade‘s musical composition and Chris More‘s video designs.
The set comprises a false proscenium which reinforces the production’s performative nature – and there’s lots of that. In fact, you are never allowed to forget that you’re in the theatre. Dummies and large puppet-like figures are wheeled on and off, and the accoutrements of performance are always visible off ‘the stage within the stage.’ Actors are costumed in basic black – smart suits and ties or little black dresses – to which are added other pieces, wigs and masks.
The action is surreal and child-like by turn. Voices are amplified and props ‘magically’ appear and disappear through a back curtain – like the tiny fairy and Santa dolls who act as tempting spirits or the creations of Faustus’ own conscience. However, despite the hi-jinks and, as compelling as the spectacle is, there is finally very little passion about this Faustus. It’s fun but it’s also very cool and objective. Too often the production’s cleverness gets in the way of the thing that really matters – the human story at its heart.
I so wanted to, but ended up caring little for the central human characters largely because we are not allowed to get close to them. They are masked or framed, screened and ‘performed’ rather than revealed in their humanity. Voices are distorted through a microphone and we remain always at an emotional distance. The teenage Gretchen, in the throes of pubescent sexual longings for Faustus, writhes around a bed amongst her stuffed toys while Vanessa Downing (Hecate) sings an amplified Schubert Lieder (accompanied by projected English lyrics). It’s a heartless moment but, I suspect, that’s the idea. It wasn’t the only instance when I felt I was watching the story unfold through the devil’s own cold lens.
The two key relationships in the play are those between Faustus and Mephistophilis and Faustus and the girl Gretchen (Kathryn Marquet) with whom, despite Mephistophilis’ plans, Faustus falls tragically in love. Gretchen is kitted out in traditional school-girl pinafore and plaits – the representation of innocence personified – and, as such, a character who seems hedged in by her framing as a static figure. Of course, Faustus and Gretchen’s is a relationship doomed before it even starts. With Mephistophilis lurking in the wings you know there’s going to be at least one more unhappy ending before the big one. However, the pivotal prison farewell scene between the couple has the potential to focus on the human cost to Faustus of his pact with the dark side. Instead, this scene is filmed live and both actors remain hidden behind the screen as their projected figures, filtered and leached of all colour, appear in close-up. Rather than bringing us closer to them, this device increases the emotional distance.
The new text, which has been created out of sources as diverse as The Bible, Milton, Donne, Dryden and augmented by Michael Gow’s own, is wonderfully poetic and eminently speakable. The entire company is in fine (if subdued) voice, but I actually longed from time to time, if not for old-fashioned Marlovian bombast, then at least some full-throated roars of human anguish and passion, especially from the protagonists. Ben Winspear is up to it – he came very close in the big, final speech from Marlowe’s play as Faustus pleads for time to stop and for the stars to quit their movement. It should be hair-raisingly thrilling stuff but it isn’t.
There is little sense here of the final anguish for Faustus or of the enormity of his loss because we’ve not seen what he has gained. It doesn’t come as a surprise when, finally, rather than being dragged down to hell in protest, this Faustus gives up and walks off stage, through the audience, and out into ‘the world.’ He probably didn’t, but I thought I saw him shrug as he accepted his fate while a lounging Mephistophilis and the remainder of the devilry watch him go. It’s a curiously flat and unsatisfying ending to all the tale-telling.
The acting company is just plain excellent but the night belonged to John Bell. His Mephistophilis is a terrifying creation, relaxed and decked out in a smart suit. He’s the kind of avuncular criminal we’ve seen on those Underbelly tv shows – the kind who chuckle, call a victim ‘mate’, and slip an arm round the shoulders just before shooting them – in the head. You just never see him coming. Vanessa Downing, Jason Klarwein (Lucifer) and Catherine Terracini (Belzebub) complete the ensemble ; they’re great to watch as they slip from character to character with obvious relish.
Faustus adapted and directed by Michael Gow is a co-production between Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare.
It plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse from 30 May – 25 June.