Review: Faustus That Damned Woman at Storyhouse ****
If you were given infinite power and a century in which to wield it, what would you do?
In Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of the Faustus myth, the titular anti-hero – having bargained his soul with the devil for just that – dreams of grandiose acts but, in reality, fritters away his earthly omnipotence on petty conjuring tricks.
In this visually striking and sinuously physical production of Chris Bush’s woman-centric take on the tale, its Johanna Faustus (a powerful performance from Olivia Sweeney) also dreams of a nobler calling. But can she escape the same fate?
The emotionally damaged daughter of a woman hanged as a witch, Johanna rejects the constraints imposed on 17th Century womanhood and seeks out Lucifer (an urbane, Belial-tongued Matthew Romain), striking a deal to give her 144 years, spread out through time, in return for the truth about her mother….and giving him her own immortal soul.
Accompanied by Lucifer’s demon Mephistopheles (played variously by all five members of the ensemble in what’s a neat dramatic conceit), Johanna flees the fiery and disastrous result of her initial attempt to ‘save’ lives, arriving in mid-19th Century London where she meets Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (Emma Pallant) the first British woman to qualify as a doctor.
Above: Johanna Faustus (Olivia Sweeney). Top: Faustus: That Damned Woman. Photos by Mark McNulty
When Anderson insists her success is down to hard work and 'sisterhood', not satanic intervention, it leads to an epiphany for Johanna.
And her original, personal, quest to find out if her mother had really sold her soul to the devil morphs into a feverish saviour complex and obsession with beating death – and cheating Lucifer in the process.
It’s an obsession which sees her cartwheeling ever onward through time, eschewing sleep in favour of learning.
This evangelical singlemindedness sees her berating a potential female employee for putting personal life before work.
And earlier, she chides chemist Marie Curie (Yali Topol Margalith) for not pushing harder for her own recognition in a scene which also includes an ingenious depiction of Curie’s husband Pierre, realised with skill and timing by Dzey Z Smith and Miriam O’Brien.
Could radium – the element discovered by the Curies - be a ‘philosophers’ stone’ which promises immortality? Or can Johanna herself become the mythic alchemic substance in human form?
She certainly seems to think so in a narrative which pushes faster and faster, and further and further away from the herbal tinctures she prepared by candlelight in the 17th Century, to a coldly-lit 21st Century (and beyond) of artificial intelligence.
Above: Lucifer (Matthew Romain) , Johanna (Olivia Sweeney) and ensemble. Photo by Mark McNulty.
Will she beat death to deliver immortality for humankind? Or, Icarus like, fly to close to the sun?
Director Fran Goodridge weaves an intense, febrile, at times seat-shiftingly uncomfortable atmosphere (sometimes unbearably so), punctuated by moments of levity and set against design duo Good Teeth’s arresting and elemental set – a claustrophobic underworld of suspended coppery tree roots, water, and sudden bursts of hellish flame.
It’s deftly lit by Sally Ferguson, the earthy darkness slowly lifted by the illumination of enlightenment, and complemented by Russell Ditchfield’s delicate sound design.
This Storyhouse Originals show is a co-production with Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, and Paul Bayes Kitcher’s choreography, devised with input from the company’s ‘Angels’, brings a compelling depth and energy to the storytelling, not least through the impressive chorus who speak, sway and move in unison and in rippling, changing patterns.