Last Updated on January 30, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
A legendary myth transforms into a vivid feminist tale.
Headlong and the Lyric Hammersmith’s powerful co-production of Faustus: That Damned Woman turns the legendary myth into a vivid feminist tale. Chris Bush’s cleverly written retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s renaissance play gender swaps the iconic role of Faustus to dramatic effect. It takes you on a journey, which spans centuries and explores the oppression of women during the 17th century and beyond.
Johanna Faustus (boldly played by Jodie McNee) is the only child to her apothecary father, (Barnaby Power) her mother was executed for witchcraft during the plague. Johanna believes her that her mother was let down by God so she goes in search of the truth having decided the only way to know if she sold her soul is to confront the devil himself. In the opening scene, she seeks understanding of the events of her death via two local women, who hold her head in bucket of water for an uncomfortably long period of time during which she has dramatic visions of her mothers downfall, and is driven to go on to make a pact with the Lucifer and seek revenge.
Johanna’s father is deeply concerned about her inability to fit in and is desperate to find her a husband who can look after her once he is gone. He starts to notice her nighttime absences and hopes she has found herself a suitable companion.
Act I of Faustus: That Damned Woman is relatively true to Marlowe’s play, it tells of Faustus’s deal with Lucifer and how she is given an aide in the form of Mephistopheles (who is entertainingly played by Danny Lee Wynter) he travels alongside her and between them they use their extraordinary powers to dish out forceful and sometimes violent revenge of those that have abused woman or crossed Faustus’s path.
What then follows is years of tyranny, with themes of damnation, faith, and immortality making their presence, a display of human intercourse by way of power, collusion and attrition. However in Bush’s version, Yohanna wants to ‘make good’ of her powers and cure all ills, and in order to do so, she vows to educate herself to the highest possible level, seeking the elixir for eternal life and a to desire to change the course of history.
“My name is Johanna Faustus. I was born almost four hundred years ago.
I gave my soul to achieve the impossible.
I watched this city grow sick and I swore to heal it.
I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil”
Bush has provided Faustus and Mephistopheles with the power to travel in time, (a Dr Who of sorts) this takes act II to new levels, but not entirely satisfactory ones. Faustus meets with the first-ever woman doctor, who acts as an inspiration to her and she goes on to inhabit a futurist tech world beyond. Ultimately Faustus searches for a world without a God or the Devil, but finally, she submits to her pact with the devil and gives up her life in the world to enter the underworld.
The entire play is set in a cavernous dark tunnel (designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) which barely alters but for the atmospheric lighting (Richard Howell) and Giles Thomas’s sound design which creates an eerie undercurrent.
Caroline Byrne’s admirable production of Faustus: That Damned Woman is a fiercely strident tale of loss, truth, superstition, and judgment that is both provocative and disappointing. It lacks light and shade, the characters are short of nuance and the pace at times is slow. However Bush’s script is brave and Faustus as a woman brings new light to this age-old myth, it provides a good vehicle to explore a woman’s role in society which is forever loaded with preconceptions and expectations thereby continuing the debate of how we treat women who pursue greatness.
Faustus: That Damned Woman is a Headlong and Lyric Hammersmith co-production, and it is also touring to Birmingham Rep, Bristol Old Vic, Leeds Playhouse, and Northern Stage Newcastle after its run at the Lyric.
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Square, King St, Hammersmith, London W6 0QL
22 January – 22 February 2020
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Centenary Square, Birmingham B1 2EP
26 February – 7 March 2020
Bristol Old Vic
King St, Bristol BS1 4ED
10 March – 21 March 2020
Playhouse Square, Leeds LS2 7UP
24 – 28 March 2020
Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RH
31 March – 4 April 2020
Looking for something in central London? We also recommend Uncle Vanya, currently showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre and EndGame, just opening at the Old Vic.