‘Faustus: That Damned Woman’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Faustus: The Damned Woman, Lyric Hammersmith 2020
Photograph: Manuel Harlan Danny Lee Wynter and Jodie McNee

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Chris Bush’s gender-swapped take on the Faustus myth lapses into extreme daftness, but star Jodie McNee holds it all together

In Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, scholar antihero Johann Faust famously dicks around with the power he has traded his soul for, squandering his years of virtual omnipotence on stuff like playing practical jokes on the Pope.

Chris Bush’s contemporary take on the myth, ‘Faustus: That Damned Woman’, asks (kind of) what a woman might have done with the power. And the answer – in this co-production between Headlong and the Lyric – is that heroine Johanna Faustus does a lot more. Like, a lot more. 

The first half of Caroline Byrne’s production is set in mid-seventeenth-century London, and begins with Johanna’s mother being tortured to death by a witchfinder. It’s this that sets her daughter – played with hypnotic intensity by Jodie McNee – down the road to what one might very loosely call damnation. Set on revenge, she falls in with a sleazy scholar of the black arts and uses his accumulated lore to summon Lucifer, who she browbeats into giving her 144 years of youth and godlike power (Johann settled for a piffling 24!) via his preening servant Mephistopheles, whose most notable gift is the ability to whisk them forwards through time.

If the first half is a sort of mystical feminist revenge thriller then the second half is a sort of mystical feminist redemption saga, as Johanna resolves to do good with her power.

There is a ‘Doctor Who’-ish quality to it. It’s not just the timey wimey stuff, or the troubled-but-brilliant quasi-immortal heroine, but also the cheerfully gauche treatment of the arc of human history, which Faustus decides to manipulate in order to empower the human race and get one over on ol’ Satan.

That Bush never seems to interrogate the morality of Johanna’s tinkering – when the classic version of the myth is almost entirely about the morality of Johann’s tinkering – is one of the things that lost me as the play wore on. Bush’s heroine seems to be presented as an avatar of unbounded female potential… but she also arrogantly manipulates humanity to the brink of extinction, a fact that is extremely glossed over in moral and emotional terms.

The flipside to this is that – like ‘Doctor Who’ – it’s a work of entertainment extremely aware of its status as escapism. But its intrinsic frivolity somewhat undermines the efforts Bush has gone to to make Faustus a more serious figure.

Still, McNee keeps the show on the road. She’s excellent as a young woman driven to the darkness by grief. She’s superb when Johanna is adrift in Victorian London, going completely off the rails (opium, threesomes, fisticuffs, that sort of thing). And it’s her fanatical charisma that keeps the wackier later sections ticking over. And she has a fine foil in Danny Lee Wynter’s extremely entertaining, somewhat emasculated Mephistopheles, whose camp malevolence agreeably undercuts Johanna’s burgeoning messiah-isms.

Bush’s attempt to ‘fix’ Faustus by having its heroine pursue the opposite path to Marlowe’s ultimately creates fresh problems of its own. But McNee is excellent and at barely two hours, this is the sort of breezy epic – full of big ideas, unpretentiously realised – that’s enjoyable enough to style out its silly bits.

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