All right, here we go. Castorf. Faust. The mighty Volksbuhne’s 7-hour marathon of Goethe’s seminal German tome. I’ve been told there is one 20-minute interval. One!? Fuck. I mean, Robert Icke had, like, 3 intervals for a 4-hour Hamlet. What’s more, the press department has allocated me a seat in the very epicenter of a huge row in the middle of the stalls. There’s no escape. To make matters worse, I’m not at all confident of beating the queue to the restroom in time for the second half. Here’s hoping that I don’t end up regretting the beer I chugged down with lunch.
Maybe the best way of approaching the next 7-hours is by treating it as endurance sport. My mates have a wager on me bailing before the end, but I’m determined to stick this one out. I’m repeatedly assured by my German friends that this is a piece of history in the making, and what’s more, this will be both my first and last experience of a Castorf work. So, before it begins, here’s a short list of a few other things I could have achieved in 7-hours”¦
- Finish reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.
- Learn to play “Love Me Do” on acoustic guitar.
- Walk to Mittenwalde.
- Burn 750 calories just from standing.
- Watch the entire first season of True Detective.
- Slow-cook a pork loin.
- Complete my tax return. Twice.
The first thing to say is that Aleksandar Denic’s set-design really is an extraordinary feat in and of itself: a towering construction of gothic grandeur, set on a huge-revolve and complete with a multitude of interior spaces through which roving cameras track the actors, and project their actions on a large screen built into the faÃ§ade. It’s a colossal hybrid of funhouse, Paris metro-station and urban noir cityscape.
The cast has just spent a good 20-minutes berating the audience for being lazy and shallow. Not that they seem to mind. The audience is relishing the abuse being dished out by Martin Wuttke’s thuggish looking Faust. Alexander Sheer, who tap-dances his way across the stage in a neat pastel-suit, just got a pint of beer poured over his head and everybody went completely mad for it. It feels very disconcerting to be sitting amongst a crowd who are in on a joke you can’t quite fathom the meaning off, but there is something unmistakably exciting about the raucousness of it all. I think Sheer was supposed to be Chris Dercon or something, which would make sense.
Wow. That entire sequence on the Metro. Just”¦ wow. We’re underneath the revolving set now, with Faust and Mephisto descending the stairs into the bowels of an underground railway station that’s been constructed beneath Denic’s revolving set. That’s right. DENIC’S BUILT A METRO STATION INTO THE STAGE SET BECAUSE: WHY THE FUCK NOT! The camera operators follow Faust-Mephisto into the train carriage and there’s a marvelously mad sequence in which the duo ride the rail while Dr. Wagner concocts a potion that spawns a spermatozoa-like being on the floor of the moving carriage; a bald-headed Hannah Hilsdorf writhes and gawps as the cling-film wrapped Homunculus. Then we get Abdoul Kader TrarÃ© delivering a spoken-word rendition of Paul Celan’s Death-Fugue to a propulsive hip-hop soundtrack. What does it mean? I don’t know. I really don’t.
Not content to mount a free-form attack on Goethe, Castorf is now chopping up bits of Emile Zola’s Nana and mixes them into the brew as well. You know, because he can. This is Frank Castorf. It’s what he does. I’m assured that the addition of Zola has something to do with “female subversion”, though given the rather troubling slew of misogynistic imagery and sexualized violence that’s been on display throughout, I’m not really sure what it is that’s supposed to be being “subverted” exactly.
I think I might need a wee.
Right. So. Castorf’s pretty much left behind the whole Faust-Mephisto thing for now and has taken us into the realm of The Algerian War. Mephisto appears hauled up in a cage like some rabid dog while the male cast – now appearing as French soldiers in standard-issue uniform – parade the stage brandishing rifles, smoking cigarettes and shouting at each other. There’s a fantastic moment later on when Thelma Buabeng delivers a fierce speech directly into the camera about Algerian women concealing machine guns beneath their dresses as they make their way past the French army. It appears that my earlier Wikipedia trawl through Goethe really isn’t going to help me here. What is starting to become clear though – despite the infernal chaos of it all – is that this is as far from an adaptation or version of Faust as you can imagine. It’s an altogether more anarchical, free-associative riff on the central master-slave conceit, which Castorf employs as a kind of loose conceptual rigging for his expedition into the brutal realities of colonialism, genocide and revolutionary violence. This is theatre as a sprawling assault on the sense: full of detours, excursions and digressions that leave you reeling from the sheer discordant exuberance of it all. There’s a freedom to Castorf’s direction that feels both liberating and infuriating in equal measure.
I definitely need a wee.
There’s a dog on-stage. Everyone loses their shit.
It’s the interval. Time for a wee.
The wager is lost. The interval comes to an end and now I’m watching the second half via the live-stream upstairs in the Festspiele bar. We’re still very much in The Algerian War and now there’s a projected footage of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers to accompany the action on-stage. Castorf’s collage of texts can feel incredibly disorienting, but the additional Potecorvo’s film at least has the benefit of enlarging about what’s already there.
The Frank Castorf’s Faust Drinking Game:
- Drink every time Denic’s set turns to reveal yet another room you didn’t notice was there before.
- Drink every time Castorf lampoons Chris Dercon and the audience goes mad for it.
- Drink every time the actors forget their lines and resort to the surtitle projection for prompts.
- Drink every time the actors stand in front of the footlight and bellow their lines directly into the audience.
- Drink every time Alexander Sheer tap-dances.
- Drink every time the actor Martin Wuttke makes nonsensical gurgling noises at the end of the first act.
- Drink every time the audience coos’ over the puppy.
- Drink every time the audience laughs and you have no idea why.
- Drink every time one of the actors calls-out to a stagehand for a prompt.
- Drink every time you have absolutely no idea what’s going on.