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Ben Winspear, Vanessa Downing, John Bell, Faustus Ben Winspear, Vanessa Downing, John Bell, Faustus
photo Rod McColl
Jason Klarwein, Catherine Terracini, Ben Winspear, Faustus Jason Klarwein, Catherine Terracini, Ben Winspear, Faustus
photo Rod McColl
John Bell, Ben Winspear, Faustus John Bell, Ben Winspear, Faustus
photo Rod McColl
THE LAST CO-PRODUCTION BETWEEN QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY AND BELL SHAKESPEARE I’D SEEN WAS HEINER MULLER’S ANATOMY TITUS FALL OF ROME: A SHAKESPEARE COMMENTARY WHICH WAS AN IMMENSELY POWERFUL, MEMORABLE AND RELEVANT PIECE OF CONTEMPORARY THEATRE, A BLOODY AND INESCAPABLE DISSECTION BY MICHAEL GOW AND JOHN BELL THROUGH THE LENS OF SHAKESPEARE AND MULLER OF THE COLLUSIVE NATURE OF CONTEMPORARY POWER AND VIOLENCE.

Their latest collaboration, Faustus, albeit providing solid, rambunctious entertainment that scarcely flagged, appeared at the outset to lack the same intensity of focus. There was ample scope, I thought, for this production to put itself more on the line. Instead what at first seemed to be a confusion of eclectic irony and disparate references was ultimately made clear in this new recounting of the legendary Faust, the scholar who sells his soul in exchange for knowledge of the universe and worldly powers.

The western world, especially as it presents the face of modernity, has long been characterised as Faustian, and non-westerners, from the most powerful to the poorest, appear to be ready to make any bargain with the devil to gain access to what is perceived as a cornucopia. This perception is taking us all to hell, or at least to a fiery end to the planet. And, leading us there, climate change sceptic Rupert Murdoch who in recent media appearances eerily resembles John Bell’s seedy portrayal of Mephistophilis as an Ocker small time, seen-it-all gangster. Bell’s was a peculiarly soulless portrayal, I thought, until the penny dropped...Mephistophilis has no soul.

Jonathon Oxlade’s set was living hell. That is to say, it grandly facilitated what in essence was a very racy production. The conceit was that its denizens were performing a show within a show, all for the mystification and damnation of Faustus. It harked back to travelling players, puppet shows, Piscator and the Weimar Republic, and used a plethora of means from documentary film footage (although this might have been updated to the 21st century) to tacky life-size mannequins as multiple framing devices. Musical references ranged from Mahler and Liszt to kraut rock. Part necessity, part Gow’s aesthetic choice, the acting style was hard, straightforward, unsentimental. Nevertheless, individuals shone through: Jason Klarwein as a Brian Ferry Lucifer, or hunched over disguised in a Richard Nixon mask; Vanessa Downing remorseless as Hecate; Catherine Terracini exhibiting the raunchy aplomb of a 1950s movie star as Beelzebub.

In his writer’s notes, Gow indicates that he has based his adaptation primarily on Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (at least, the lines regarded purely as Marlowe’s) and JW Goethe’s treatment of the same theme in his Urfaust that preceded Faust; the Tragedy Parts I and II. Gow points out that Marlowe’s collaborators padded out the drama with farcical knockabout, and Goethe introduced the story of the young girl Gretchen. The Marlowe version presented a series of ‘shows’ or plays within plays, so Gow decided to include the episode of Gretchen as another of these ‘shows.’

Even so, as movingly played by Ben Winspear and Kathryn Marquet, it is the most human episode in what otherwise might have seemed a relentlessly cynical piece, and speaks directly to Gow’s vision of love, love carnal and love exalted in the words of Marlowe’s own, The Passionate Shepherd to his Mistress. Throughout I warmed to Gow’s love of the English language of the period which performed a particularly nostalgic threnody at this juncture for our own lost innocence and experience, of the half-familiar, half remembered words from school poetry text books, addressed to the schoolgirl Gretchen. The revelation of the heat of Gretchen’s adolescent desire was searing and poignant and personal in this production. The outcome of this disproportionate love affair has Gretchen mistakenly poisoning her mother with a drug given to her by Faustus so they can meet at night. Faustus, much to the disgust of Mephistophilis, has genuinely fallen in love with Gretchen, but cannot save her from execution, nor does she want him to, putting her faith instead in the merciful nature of divine, not human, justice.

Writing in the 18th century when the conflict of science and faith was less literally incendiary than in the 16th, Goethe was free as a natural scientist as well as a poet to express his fellow-feeling for Faust’s ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe, and so in the end assigns him a less dastardly fate than the one designated him by Marlowe. For Goethe, the love of a good woman was Faust’s salvation. Faust: the Tragedy Part II, declares that, “The Eternal Feminine leads us on.” Marlowe’s Faustus tries to strike a bargain with God by promising to burn his books, only to be condemned for his double apostasy by God’s silence, and Faustus is dragged screaming to Hell. Gow for the 21st century interrupts the narrative precisely at the point where God is silent, the actors explaining that this has all been theatre, that Heaven and Hell are merely stage props, and condemning Faustus to the freedom of his own conscience as he makes a swift exit through an audience that now stands similarly condemned.

At first I spontaneously cheered a gesture that seemed politically apt in the light of the world-wide revival of rampant religious fundamentalism, and so in accord with Marlowe’s avowed atheism as if he were finally free to speak his mind. Over time, however, Gow’s interruption appeared richer, more resonant. In his Thesis on History, Walter Benjamin explains the power of dialectical thinking as opposed to historicism: “Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. When thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock.” In a highly pertinent essay, “Interruption and the Last Part,” Gabriel Josipovici points out that it was the ability to arrest thoughts that Benjamin cherished above all in the theatre of Brecht. Epic theatre, says Benjamin, breaks up the stream of continuity and allows us to see that events could be other than they are. If post modernism, so-called, has made a fetishism of interruption, the task of the modern artist, Josipovici concludes, is to make something that will catch both the power of continuity and at the same time, through interruption, to break its hold over us. On both counts, Michael Gow’s Faustus delivered.


Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare: Faustus, after Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, adapted and directed by Michael Gow, writer, performers John Bell, Vanessa Downing, Jason Klarwein, Kathryn Marquet, Catherine Terracini, Ben Winspear, designer Jonathon Oxlade, lighting designer Jason Glenwright, composer Phil Slade; Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre, May 30 – June 25,

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 10

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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