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Theatre review: Vesturport's Faust 
12th-Oct-2010 10:57 pm
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I don't like to know too much about shows before I go to see them; Andy knows this, so when he went to see Faust at the Young Vic a couple of weeks ago, all he texted me afterwards was that it was "fun but throwaway." The latter seems a very odd description for the epic tale of the man who sells his soul to a demon, pretty much the definition of a story that comes with some pretty Big Themes. I've never seen Goethe's version of the story before (ironically the only version I've seen was in the same theatre, when Jude Law played Marlowe's Doctor Faustus) but I do know it's a two-part epic, so the poster claim that Icelandic company Vesturport's version is "adapted from Goethe" seems a bit of a stretch. In fact director and co-writer Gísli Örn Gardarsson's programme note admits the company looked at Goethe, Marlowe and numerous other sources before putting together their own twist on it. This production is really a riff on Faust rather than a telling of the story, and if you wanted an example of what I mean, the title character doesn't actually appear in this play.

It's Christmas at an old people's home and famed actor, now old and down on his luck, Johann (Thorsteinn Gunnarsson) does a little impromptu performance of the one big role he never got to play, that of Faust. He's interrupted by a malicious care worker (Runar Freyr Gislason) and later that night tries to hang himself with fairy lights. That's when Mefisto (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason,) Lilith (Nina Dögg Filipusdóttir) and Asmodeus (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrive to save him and offer him a deal that'll make the aborted performance come to life. Gunnarsson and Haraldsson later swap roles, as Johann is given a younger body to romance Greta (Unnur Ösp Stefansdottir,) the nurse he's fallen for. From the moment the demons arrive, the production goes into Vesturport's trademark acrobatics and stage magic, and the major coup in Axel Jóhannesson's set is a large net over the entire audience, on which some of the acrobatics take place. I was in the front row, which in this production are cheap seats because you need to majorly crane your neck to see what's going on on the safety net. But only about 10% of the action is up there, and besides there's the added bit of excitement as the actors sometimes seem about to come crashing right down onto your head.

So there's spectacle and a grotesque sensibility that makes this an interesting show visually, but where Gardarsson's Metamorphosis used these to great effect to tell the story, here I found myself frustrated at the lack of storytelling. In fact the writers seem at pains to avoid telling the actual story at any cost - witness the fact that it takes half an hour for them to bring the demons to life (in a production that's already compressing two plays into two hours, including interval) and we spend the opening 30 minutes in a gentle opener in the retirement home. It's a good sequence, helped largely by Hanna Maria Karlsdottir's lovely performance as a feisty old lady, but it's aimless. Once the main action begins, it's still not very clear what the story is meant to be, and attempts to be thought-provoking fail. And two major things that were lacking: There's no sense of Johann going on a journey with Mefisto; and it's certainly not clear that he signs his soul away in full knowledge that's what he's doing. Like I say, this has its moments but it's a riff on Faust, rather than the story itself. And throwaway is, unfortunately, the right word.

Vesturport's Faust by Nina Dögg Filipusdóttir, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Carl Grose, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Vikingur Kristjansson after Goethe is booking until the 30th of October at the Young Vic.
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