JOHANN GEORG FAUST was an early-16th-century German alchemist and astrologer. He performed magic tricks so inexplicable that the Church denounced him as being in league with the devil. When he died in an explosion during an alchemical experiment, his body was so burnt that a rumour spread that Lucifer had dragged his soul to hell. Within decades, his story had become the subject of poems, plays, and music.
The legend is best known in the UK through a play of c.1590 by Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus. In it, a scientist makes a pact with the devil that he will give him his soul eternally in exchange for access to untold magical abilities through the demon Mephistopheles. He fritters away these powers on fame, sex, and excess. As death and damnation approach, Faustus recognises the salvation that he has forfeited: “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament. One drop would save my soul; half a drop.” It is, tragically, too late.
The latest reworking of the legend is by Chris Bush. Faustus: That Damned Woman swaps the gender of the main character and presents Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter) as a camp dandy. Johanna Faustus (an emphatic Jodie McNee) is the daughter of a 17th-century apothecary. Her mother has been hanged as a witch, and she despises the fact that this has been done in the name of Christianity. She makes her alliance with the devil so that “I shall do good.” She is determined that education will allow her to be “in thrall to no man”.
Time-travelling through the centuries, she meets Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Marie Curie (Emmanuella Cole and Alicia Charles), and far in the future heads a research organisation seeking the digital equivalent of an elixir of eternal life. Vainglorious and compromised, she reflects on what it costs for a woman to have ambitions of greatness. But, just as in all other versions of the story, the end is inevitable.
It is unarguably a revisionist and original reworking of the legend, and that is very welcome. But, ye gods! it’s hard work. Caroline Byrne’s production is high on ideas, but low on magic. The play’s themes are as crucial as bone, but without the flesh of plotted drama on them they rarely stir into engaging life. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s gloomy set, like a whale’s skeleton, seems to acknowledge the problem.
It is splendid to rethink this and other classic stories with a complex female anti-hero. But Johanna is never allowed moments of intimacy which would warm us towards her. Her most interesting bond is with Mephistopheles. When asked about her relationship with men, she replies, in one of the play’s well-placed comic moments, “It’s complicated.”
The concept is compelling. The ideas are fiendish. But, like Faustus herself, the play doesn’t really fulfil its vaulting ambition.
Faustus: That Damned Woman continues at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King Street, London W6, until 22 February. Phone 020 8741 6850. lyric.co.uk
The production will tour to Birmingham (26 February-7 March), Bristol (10-21 March), Leeds (24-28 March), and Newcastle (31 March-4 April). headlong.co.uk/productions/faustus-damned-woman