At the heart of writer Chris Bush’s reimagining of Dr Faustus is a hell of a good idea (pun unintended). In the original, the male Doctor Faustus cuts a deal with the devil for 24 years of life on earth of unadulterated decadence and bliss in exchange for eternity in hell. What Chris puts to us is, if Faustus were a woman, would this still pan out the same way?
It’s such a fascinating proposition. it promises to cut to the heart of the lived experience of being a woman for if a woman were offered such an exchange – unlimited power at her fingertips – wouldn’t she in fact reject a life of debauchery for the opportunity to avenge the discriminations and prejudices that she is condemned to suffer on this earth?
I had visions of this steering into Naomi Alderman’s The Power territory with our now female protagonist wrestling with the desire for revenge. What would be challenged and overturned if our Faustus had all the dark talents of Mephistophilis at her disposal? Could the social imposition of gender discrimination and patriarchal power structures be overturned? And at what cost? And how would her conscience wrestle with this?
However, this great starting point never fulfils its potential in this joint Lyric Hammersmith-Headlong production, directed by Caroline Byrne. The result is an uneven, often muddled, show that never seems sure of what it wants to be and what message it is trying to convey.
Jodie McNee certainly gives it all as our Johanna Faustus – not a doctor but a poor serving girl living, or rather existing, in 17th century London. Haunted by the execution of her mother for witchcraft, she seeks Lucifer out to find out if the accusations the men who judged her mother were true. But what transgresses is a deal for, in exchange for lifting Johanna out of squalid poverty with no hope of a future and answering her questions about her mother, she must hand her soul to damnation for eternity at the end of her days.
Powerful soliloquies are a hallmark of Christopher Marlowe’s original and Jodie delivers hers with venom and power, offset with dramatic anguished howls over her predicament and choices. And there’s an attractive steely will to her as Jodie’s Johanna refuses to be played by Lucifer the way men have played her.
Once the pact is sealed, she is given Mephistophilis as her guide and servant. Danny Lee Wynter provides a crowd-pleasing camp performance but though I’m a great lover of kitsch, I found this jarring. There is a role for comedy in this show, as with the original – and there’s certainly plenty of one liners (“If you knew the lives we women lead, you’d understand the Devil is a catch”) – but the blend created here doesn’t work; it feels as if we have the halves of two different cars spot-welded together and so, lacking a nuanced, complex Mephistophilis, we are robbed of, what could have been, a fascinating power struggle between the woman and her devil.
Sadly, the second half spins off into a frenetic series of time jumps as Johanna lives out all her years at pace in a desperate race to save the human race from mortality and we lose all sense of character and motivation. Johanna’s ambition for a silicon utopia doesn’t seem to fit with where we started and the drama wilts as the comedic touches are relied upon more and more to keep us engaged.
It makes me sad to write this as I was really willing this show on but the result doesn’t do its great ideas justice.
Lyric Hammersmith, London to 22 February. Tickets from £15.
All production images by Manuel Harlan.
Set Design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, Costume Design by Line Besch; Lighting Design by Richard Howell.