Faustus: That Damned Woman

Based on the play by Christopher Marlowe, adapted by Chris Bush
Storyhouse
Storyhouse, Chester

Olivia Sweeney as Johanna Faustus Credit: Mark McNulty
Olivia Sweeney as Joanna Faustus (centre). Left to right: Emma Pallant, Yali Topol Margalith, Dzey Z Smith (back centre), Miriam O’Brien, and Bridgette Amofah making up the ensemble of deadly sins. Credit: Mark McNulty
Miriam O’Brien (left), Bridgette Amofah (centre), Yali Topol Margalith (right) as three of the four horsemen. Credit: Mark McNulty

The Jacobean tale of Faustus is given a modern reworking in Francesca Goodridge’s pleasingly dark production which retains the element of the diabolical pact of the original story, but only partially delivers on the central concept of feminist struggle.

The cast are an undoubted highlight of the performance with Olivia Sweeney a strong and constant presence as Johanna Faustus, the pivotal character in this interpretation which sees a reversal in the motives of the Faustus character. Traditionally, Marlowe’s troubled Doctor had sought power and pleasure from his pact with Lucifer, however, Johanna seeks the power to do only good.

Set, like the original, in the seventeenth century to begin, the plot offers the chance to trace subjugation and abuse of women back to the “Witch Craze” of the time. Despite the fact that witch trials were by no means just for women, this does work as a useful starting point. Johanna’s mother was hanged as a result of allegations of witchcraft and, after deciding God has failed to save her, Johanna decides to seek Lucifer and make the pact that will enable her to do good instead.

As part of the deal, Lucifer leaves Mephistopholes as his agent, or Johanna’s PA depending on interpretation. The part of Mephistopholes is played in turn by each of the supporting cast, with each of them adding a subtle layer of depth of intrigue to the character. This does help to lighten proceedings and shine a light on the talented cast who, along with the deliciously darkadelic stage design, are the strong points of the production.

Once gaining her powers from Lucifer, Johanna’s concern turns to the welfare of her father during The Great Plague. However, her demands that Mephistopheles cure him of illness results in the demon causing the fire in which Faustus Senior perishes. Considering Johanna was willing to bargain her soul due to the grief at the loss of her mother, the loss of Daddy Faustus seems to not overly bother her, as she seeks an opportunity to zip forward in time and straighten out a few issues.

The time-travelling element that ensues does leave the feeling that somehow the plot has been lost, and the efforts of Johanna to right the wrongs of the world at various time periods seems quite a stretch for a seventeenth century peasant woman. The concept of female inequality and injustice in general does work as a central theme, but you could be left with the feeling of “what was that all about” by the conclusion as the breadth of time and events fail to fully convince, particularly when considering the parochial nature of the lead character's background.

However, the production is definitely saved by a vivid stage design and an energetic and talented cast who throw themselves into the story wholeheartedly and deliver an enjoyable and thought-provoking performance.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings

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