Jodie McNee’s Faustus – Johanna, rather than Johann – is hungry. She spits out her lines as if gnawing over a leg of lamb. Each sentence is shot at full intensity, and she doesn’t let up. Her hunger is for more than her lot – more power than the 17th century affords women, more time than her mortal flesh allows. The first time we see her, her head is submerged in a bucket of water, through which she sees visions of her dead mother, and she’s begging her friend to let her stay in the water longer. Never enough, always more.
There’s more than a little Doctor Who about Chris Bush’s adaptation of Doctor Faustus – her wish, granted by Lucifer, is for 144 years of life, and the ability to travel forward in time. She buddies up with notable historical figures: Elizabeth Garret (the first qualified female doctor in the UK) and Marie Curie. She’s a doctor of a kind, too – daughter of a herbalist, later shapeshifting into a accomplished scientist in the Victorian era (trying to alchemise immortality from radium), then a tech mogul offering to upload people’s consciousnesses to the Cloud. She casts herself as a saviour figure, but, like the Doctor, her relentless mission is driven as much by a need for personal redemption as by altruism (The Doctor essentially committed genocide during the Time War, remember!).
Her tech entrepreneur incarnation spoke to me to a Top Girls-esque critique of feminism under capitalism whereby women who achieve power are subsumed into existing patriarchal structures, perpetuating their own oppression and exploitation. The temptation of power is a trick in that it can’t provide the emancipation Faustus desires.
But this isn’t necessarily the direction – or the only direction – Bush takes us in. Faustus’s journey here feels less like a tale of corruption, and more of failure; the tragedy is that she can’t keep up with the times. She’s chasing a carrot. The work will never, seemingly, be done, especially as the world crumbles around her. Plague and pestilence abounds at the beginning of the story (anxious-making prescience on Bush’s part), and by the end, in the early 3000s, the roar of late capitalism has given way to birdsong and foraging. Small self-sufficient communities rebuilding themselves in the aftermath of civilisational collapse. The future looks a lot like the past, and it’s only here that Faustus finds peace at last, counting the slow days down as best she can.
In real time, we spend only 2 hours in the theatre. The play crams a lot in. You could accuse it of ‘overreaching’ – of getting carried away with its time-hopping scope, introducing a flurry of new ideas in its second act and running out of oxygen to give them as it hurtles towards the finish line of Faustus’s inevitable death and damnation. But to do so would seem to be missing the point of a play which is itself about limitless ambition, and the ways in which women aren’t given the same license to ambition as men. Give me an overreaching hot mess over a straight adaptation any day.
Nevertheless, there’s something about Caroline Byrne’s production itself that stymies the play’s tendency towards maximalism. It opts for a gloomy, apocalyptic aesthetic, playing out on Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set of a dilapidated tunnel structure, reminiscent of an airplane hanger, polytunnel, or the ribcage of a prehistoric monster. It’s lit dimly in cold, violet hues. An brooding, ever-present sound design says: this is serious theatre. But the play’s premise is camp, from the badass revenge saga of its opening act (some Bad Men get their throats slit) to the time travel adventure of its second. The acting, whilst almost always at fever pitch, is controlled and calibrated. I wanted for less earnestness and precision, and more colour, more laughter, more abandon. Always more. Never enough. Always more.
Faustus: That Damned Woman runs at Bristol Old Vic until 21st March before touring to Leeds and Newcastle until 4th April. More info here.