Faustus: That Damned Woman (Lyric Hammersmith)

The myth of Faust has been adapted many times before, as a man sells his soul to the devil and vows to use his remaining mortality to do nothing but good. Here, the lead role is gender-swapped as Johann becomes Johanna – her path to damnation fuelled by a desire to know what happened to her mother, executed for witchcraft.

The elements are strong in Caroline Byrne’s production – water, fire, air, earth are all significant, the set (by Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita) is cold and cavernous with a foul smell – and our female Faustus is wild, determined and unbalanced through the early scenes, notably moderating the speed and tone of her language once free of her mortal conscience.

This is a play of two contrasting halves of an hour each: the first set in a seventeenth century blighted by plague where women need to be “tethered” to survive; the second a furious rush through time meeting key figures in medicine and science (Elizabeth Garrett, Marie Curie) along the way.

Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles and Jodie McNee as Johanna
Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles and Jodie McNee as Johanna

More Doctor Who than Doctor Faustus, I found the second half much more compelling and entertaining than the ponderous opener, which dragged and irritated despite a number of interesting pieces around Faustus’s new powers and the depiction of the seven deadly sins trapped within her.

Jodie McNee’s performance is assured enough to dominate this piece, with the remaining characters – the fey and malicious Mephistopheles aside – drifting in and out of the narrative. The cast numbers seven in all, most playing multiple parts, but I found these parts underwritten and not distinctive enough to register seperately.

Making a female Faustus is a brave choice, filled with potential, but the disconnect between the two halves of the play is too pronounced, and the depiction of moral dilemmas in the second half too superficial, for this play to wholly succeed. Johanna seems to be oblivious to real women’s issues, including the fight for the vote, and seeks only her own personal glory.

Jodie McNee as Johanna
Jodie McNee as Johanna

Johanna may seek to do good, but from her first command brings distress and devastation, as predicted by the witches in act one – “she will not stop until the world burns with her”. I wanted to see that apocalypse, but it never came – although the ending was a powerful coda to the sci-fi we had just witnessed.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is written by Chris Bush and co-produced by Headlong Theatre. It continues at Lyric Hammersmith until 22 February, then goes on a short tour.

Image credits Manuel Harlan.

LouReviews purchased a discounted ticket to see Faustus: That Damned Woman.