FAUSTUS (THAT DAMNED WOMAN)
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Wednesday 26th February, 2020
There is more to gender-swapping in Chris Bush’s take on the Faust tale. Her protagonist, Johanna Faustus, tries to use the diabolic powers granted her by her pact with Lucifer, to do good in the world. At first, she is driven by her desire to know whether her executed mother had been, in fact, the witch men claimed her to be – this learned, she races through centuries trying to eradicate death so that notions of heaven and hell will become irrelevant. At every step, her intentions are thwarted – the Devil is a slippery bastard, after all.
In the title role, Jodie McNee is cranked up to eleven, rarely dialling down to less than an eight. This works well to show her passion and her drive as she almost bursts with energy. She does a great deal of pacing around, as though her legs were generating her thoughts. On the whole this is fine, but every once in a while I feel like crying out, Oh just stand still for a moment. She is all energy without stillness, all sound but no silence.
Danny Lee Wynter’s laconically foppish Mephistopheles is a treat, understated in his campness, offhandedly confident in his infinite powers – in contrast with Faustus’s incessant hamster-on-a-wheel approach. Barnaby Power doubles as Johanna’s Dad and as Lucifer, father of lies – there is a suggestion that Johanna’s adventures might be all delusion brought about by her insane obsession with her mother’s cruel demise…
There is strong support from Emmanuella Cole as the tortured mother and later as the cool and collected Dr Garrett, history’s first female physician. Johanna later befriends Marie Curie (Alicia Charles) and it is these encounters that give the play a Doctor Who educate-and-entertain feel. The action leaps ahead – there are no strong females in the 20th Century, apparently – and we are in the far future, and what’s left of humanity is still to be saved.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s stunning set evokes the belly of a shipwreck and the ribs of a beached whale. It is also a time-tunnel, a vortex, an abyss… Director Caroline Byrne conjures up many effective moments – the workings of supernatural forces are exquisitely done, enhanced by Richard Howell’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound and music. But somehow, the play fails to capture the imagination. Grand ideas are toyed with but seem undeveloped. And so, as Johanna Faustus and Mephistopheles, hurtling through time like Bill & Ted, turn out not to have an Excellent Adventure, but something of a Bogus Journey instead.