dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
New Faust story sees woman sell her soul to the Devil
The Faust legend is given a new guise in this bold re-telling of a classic story by Headlong Theatre Company. John Faustus becomes the female Johanna Faustus and the character who traditionally is a scholar who sells his soul to play with trifles now becomes a poor woman who bargains with the Devil to gain knowledge.
The production, written by Chris Bush and currently playing the main house at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, isn't just a token switching the gender of the protagonist - the fact that Faustus is now a woman is central to the story.
With her mother executed as a witch, Johanna is determined to discover if her mother really was in the Devil's camp or not. Conjuring up Lucifer she bargains for the truth – and bargains hard. When faced with eternal damnation this Faustus determines that her life on earth as a woman would be no worse and so signs the deal. In the return she gains the ability to travel forward in time and to command the Devil's servant Mephistopheles.
After initially falling prey to the trickery of the demon, Faustus sets out to build a better world, one where science and technology can prolong life and ultimately overcome death.
Directed by Caroline Byrne and designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita there is an apocalyptic feel to this production even before Faustus time travels forward. With the story beginning with the plague, we then see fire, famine, war and death – as the centuries roll forward people continue to succumb. The sets are largely dark, cavernous, ashen and empty with the only splashes of colour being some of Johanna's outfits.
The role of Johanna demands a great deal from an actress. On stage throughout the entire show, Jodie McNee gives it her all in a role which sees her wrung out throughout the drama. Dominating the stage, she is taut but also vulnerable, angry but also perplexed, a caged creature longing to be free.
Adding a balance of humour is Danny Lee Wynter's flamboyant Mephistopheles who longs to wreak havoc on the population but is held back by Johanna. Barnaby Power plays both Johanna's caring father and the implacable Lucifer, determined to have Faustus' soul.
Bush's writing is sharply ironic. As we march through the centuries, Faustus witnesses the incredibly slow progress of women's equality – amazed when she meets the first woman doctor and indignant that women can be leading scientists and yet not able to vote. And at the close, a loner who is the talk of the village, we see that even centuries later a woman who chooses to step out the ordinary remains a mystery to others.
The Faust legend offers so much to writers and it's encouraging to see this new production take up so many of those opportunities by creating a new Faust narrative, one which makes us question not just the role of women but also humanity's relentless march to take control. Faustus That Damned Woman is a Faust story for the 21st century.