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By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson
Faustus: That Damned Woman at
Directed by Caroline Byrne adapted by Chris Bush
I often think that smell is the most intimate sense. The scent of a perfume that conjures someone absent into the room, the way vomit can make your lungs close up. When you walk into the Birmingham Rep for Faustus: That Damned Woman, you can smell burning. Right from the minute we enter the theatre, we can smell the fire and brimstone of hell that we all know is waiting at the end of the play. You can taste it.
In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the most famous reiteration of the myth, Johan Faustus sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for twenty-four years of unbridled power. He could do anything, but he fritters it away in greed and lust, his ultimate prize the most beautiful woman on Earth. He was a man of science but his thirst for knowledge dries up into pure vanity. We have higher hopes for our Johanna. She is desperate in her conjuring, vowing to make humanity a better place. In 17th century England, she is confined by a fiercely patriarchal society and cannot achieve the education and career that would make her the best healer she can be. We want her to outwit the devil and save humanity. She wants to be a saviour, so she ultimately can be saved from damnation.
We begin with Johanna’s mother being hanged for witchcraft, a midwife who has recently watched the loss of babies. The day before Faustus I saw The Welkin at the National Theatre, in which Maxine Peake’s character is also a midwife who has had babies die in her arms, and is likewise accused of witchcraft. Faustus is a play about the desire for knowledge above all else, and in these characters from two different plays we see that educated women were always suspect, and when things go wrong for them, men are all too quick to write their talents off as supernatural. Emmanuella Cole is stunning as Johanna’s mother, blistering in her grief as she pleads to see her daughter before she dies, her face a vision of tears and snot. This sets in motion Johanna’s deal with the devil, needing the knowledge that her mother was not in league with the devil, and her spectre haunts the play right until its final moments.
Jodie McNee is a revelation as Faustus. It’s without a doubt one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She is given 144 years of life for her pact with the devil, and through those years we see her fragile, grieving, desperate, proud, vengeful. We see the whole emotional journey of a human life from start to end. As a character, Faustus can’t help but remind you of Hamlet: all that indecision and bounding energy and trauma, doing everything to try and right the wrong of a dead parent. She is an angel of history piling up the wreckage around her. McNee is vulnerable, but even before her pact with the devil she taunts other characters with a drawl and a snarl, she is a creature of arrogance and selfishness. It’s so refreshing to see a female character be so visceral in their faults when women so often have to be perfect and likeable to be cast as leads. Men don’t have a monopoly on ambition.
Faustus has her foil in the deliciously camp Mephistopheles, played by Danny Lee Wynter, clearly having the time of his life as he glides around the stage wreaking chaos, stealing most of the scenes he’s in. Beneath the charm, there’s a vulnerability to this devil, who is cast out twice. A play needs an ensemble to tell the story together and this cast is faultless.
Chris Bush has done an incredible job with this script, taking a beloved story of male ambition from the canon and transforming it into a narrative on the ways women are stopped from growing but fight to succeed regardless. Despite her different motivations, Johanna is corrupted just as Johan was, and her Silicon Valley dreams are not a way of helping humanity, but of outsmarting the devil: you can’t go to hell if you can never really die. We all know how it’s going to end but we’re left in a moment of suspense anyway, dreading what’s to come: we’re left in the present tense of the horror, where you can never really heal. You leave the theatre still smelling the smoke.
Faustus: That Damned Woman is at Birmingham Rep until 7th March. Book tickets here: birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/faustus-that-damned-woman.html
This isn’t a sponsored post.
Eleanor Lawson presents and produces Interval Theatre Tuesdays at 3pm on Brum Radio.