The Female Element. Something Beyond the Dichotomy
By Aleksandra Zińczuk
Review of Faustus: That Damned Woman, dir. Caroline Byrne, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London. A contemporary story based on Christopher Marlowe’s play. A theatrical piece by Chris Bush is an out-of-the-box interpretation of the Faustian myth.
Before the audience, mesmerized by rhythmic haunting music and a choking smell of incense, is completely plunged into silence, the first images are being displayed from a dimly lit tunnel. The pictured retrospection make viewers aware of the fate and fortunes of the protagonist. From the very first moment, they have been under the impression that both the stage and the house are located under the deck of a wooden ship structure washed up on the bank of the Thames, as the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre is situated just by the river, only a five minutes walk away from the Hammersmith Bridge. While it is not actually as close to the river as the famous Globe Theatre nearby the Millennium Bridge, the wooden domed structure hints at the director’s intention to merge literary and cultural traditions and thus to move back in time.
Wet hair, scraps of clothing and creaking ropes wash up the story of a broken family on our cozy river bank. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, who is culturally identified already in the play title, becomes here his female equivalent, namely Johanna Faustus. Following its literary precursor, the work by the contemporary playwright(-ess) Chris Bush (a transgender, as we can guess from her biographical note) poses a question: How would the character use his extraordinary alchemic and diabolic power if he were a woman?
This feminist tone is by no means a latest trend in contemporary arts. This variation on the theme of the German doctor and magician would not have ever come into being if it were nor for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (and its brilliant film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton) or—following this path—Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (in this film, Marlowe is still alive while Eve, who excelled in speed reading, is constantly studying the whole body of world literature) and Dead Man (where William Blake is reincarnated into another body), as well as Paul Claudel’s plays inspired by Joan of Arc, and courageous heroes with feminine features in William Blake’s artworks, and dozens of other works that make it possible to imagine a trip in time, and a female genius with its inclination to transgression. After all, as a Polish proverb says, “Where the devil gives up, a woman carries on.”
We set off then along the tunnel of memory and into the world of our antiheroine. The design of the stage with its perspective scenery (the stage is framed by the wooden ribbed Gothic-like structure) performs a double function: a symbolic one, enrooted in the aesthetic motif of theatre within theatre, and a conventional one, thanks to which we can watch brief parallel retrospections into different chronotopes. We can see two stages in one due to the perspective arrangement evoking the composition of a Dutch painting. We learn about the dreadful ending of Johanna’s mother, who was accused of witchery during the 1665–1666 Great Plague of London and tortured to death. It was not only the plague that left a black stain on the city’s history, but also the Great Fire, which destroyed two-thirds of London’s buildings; since then, the city’s architecture has changed more than just a bit. Johanna is being brought up by her father, an apothecary. He cares about marrying his daughter off and making provisions for her future. She does not think about starting a family though, and, having grown up into maturity, comes to believe that she will do something great. She is going to avenge her mother and all the persecuted women. Her life mission reads, “I was born almost four hundred years ago. I gave my soul to achieve the impossible. I watched this city grow sick and I swore to heal it. I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil.”
So she has to make a pact with Lucifer. Following her feverish request, a visitor dressed up in the noble’s turquoise arrives. He appears before her under the guise of her father, a good-natured man. This is where Satan’s crafty play manifests itself. The comer cunningly mixes good and evil, black and white, so as to never let a human see the truth. Then there appears Mephistopheles who is ready to fulfill Johanna’s every wish. Naturally, he has the looks of a handsome devil elegantly dressed in white (for a moment, he will be funnily enacting the part of Johanna’s alleged fiancé before her father). He is both a crafty fellow quite bored with the world of humans and an absent-minded servant. His handsome looks, white outfit and dandy-like bored attitude are contrasted with some nonchalance, which makes him look like an average man.
Theatrical conventionalities help move the audience back in time; at one point, a trope of a magic hat put on by the protagonist is invoked, then there appears on the stage a plague doctor wearing an emblematic beaked mask, a more recent counterpart of the Venetian Medico Della Peste.
The primacy of knowledge over beauty is shown through the characters of strong women Johanna has a chance to meet and speaks to. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a suffragist, the first woman physician and the first woman mayor in Great Britain, receives her stiffly and with dignity. The protagonist’s naivety and lack of self-possession emphasize her being completely out of the grand dames’ league. On the other hand, her spontaneity and self-empowerment set the course for the liberated women’s common vision of the world. Maria Sklodowska-Curie, in her turn, is presented as an independent and self-assured woman as we watch her opening a bottle with radium with no man’s help, as though it were a simple bottle of wine. And if we are to mention Helen of Troy as one of those women who have influenced major world changes, we should remember that in Marlowe’s play, she is presented as a symbol of desire. What Bush cares about is not women’s beauty, but their ambition, effectiveness, independence, and courage. She rejects the outer beauty as a traditional men’s idea of female power understood only in terms of sex appeal. Later on, when the action of the play switches to the 22nd century and the 3000s, the protagonist displays herself as a visionary and a groundbreaker.
The costume design by Line Bech is worth appreciating. The contribution of the movement director (Shelley Maxwell) is much in evidence too. What is thought-provoking, at the level of reinterpretation of the world of myth entangled in the experience of the contemporary Everyman, is that the show’s scenery with its wooden structure being the main axis of the stage shows a clear parallel to the concept of the celebrated British Museum exhibition Troy: myth and reality opened in November of 2019. In that sense, the wooden ship structure would remind the interior of the Trojan horse, the greatest trap in the ancient civilization’s history, while the most evil power in the play, dressed in Satan’s costume, would still adjust itself to the hardest times and circumstances, briefly and dispassionately taking over human souls in every epoch.
The Lyric Hammersmith has its long tradition of staging the classics and retains its place among the top ten London theatres. Brilliant acting, humour, lightness and up-to-dateness are solid and distinctive features of British theatre, and this is where one can admire them. The play was to have runs in other theatres in the UK throughout March and April this year while the premiere of Sophocles’ Antigone translated by the Irish Noble Prize winner Seamus Heaney is upcoming.
However, the world literary canon is treated in a somewhat superficial manner. In the case of Faustus, what was lacking was a more broad interpretation against the backdrop of the German drama by Goethe. It was undoubtedly he who made the Faustian myth the most recognizable one in world literature. It must be said, though, that the theatrical imagination was more influenced by Shakespeare, especially in the first period of his writing, than by Marlowe, and one of the most iconic productions of Goethe’s Faust in the history of theatre was the one staged by Sir Henry Irving in London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1885. In summary, the role of the artist in the dichotomic struggle has been completely left out and even intentionally neglected. Classy ladies of the present day in pink dresses working for charitable organizations and the idea of achieving immortality through technology are just an equivalent of kitsch deprived of any substance, which makes the ending of the play seem not quite complete.
At the end, the main character, whose lively, electrifying acting was holding the viewers’ attention throughout all the performance, presses herself down to the boards of the stage like a sick bird unable to fly. However, the viewer will never know why it actually happens. Some naive sentimentalism out of the tune with the overall performance concept has sneaked in here. One should admit, though, that in terms of form this tone might still be quite adequate, if treated as reflection taking its origin in the tradition of morality play. In such a case this energetic and charismatic superheroine appears to be one of us, becomes closer to us, because she can also be weak and can also be defeated. Her last soliloquy conveys a pessimistic message to the audience.
Swept away by ambition, Johanna is going not only to avenge her mother, but also to save the world, to change its course. The tragedy of her situation is that trying to resort to evil in doing good she will always be doomed to failure. But does it mean, then, that Lucifer wins? The imperative, the goal and the strategy alone will not be enough. What is needed is ‘something’ (emphasized by the protagonist) and it is the awareness of the ‘something’ that brings hope. But ‘something’ happens only between people, in relations with the Other, and never in isolation, out of touch with similar problems and basic needs of other people. The motif of father in father-child relations that recurs in a very delicate, almost unnoticeable way, allows us to find the underlying idea of relations between the hidden, invisible, inconceivable God and a finite human being.
Johanna fails in liberating women and cannot overcome the centuries-old tradition dominated by the white man, to give it a postcolonial twist. Behind the protagonist, her stance, power and immortality, there always stands a man. She will not ever exorcise this greatest demon either out of herself or out of mankind, which can be seen in a poignant scene when the devil speaks out of her mouth.
Every epoch has its own vision of doomsday. Today, the black medieval mask of a plague doctor is being replaced by white and blue single-use surgical masks. Quite accidentally, under the grim circumstances of the spreading coronavirus, the play acquires a universal meaning alluding to more than just the seventeenth-century plague. The pest was finally brought to an end by a great fire. The element of fire, destruction and cleansing turned out, therefore, to be stronger than cultural and gender divisions or the eternal conflict of good and evil, while man became ‘the little man’ again. Changing the paradigm of thinking might be a chance for us, provided that we can distinguish whether we speak about the decline of today’s hierarchized world, its emptiness, the already insufficient transgression, and the dichotomy of female and male, good and evil, rich and poor, or about relativism that discretely sneaked into all the spheres of our life a long time ago and might foreshadow the disintegration of human bonds, the basis of our everyday humanity. But it is the Faustian stance that goes beyond the dichotomy, so the life motto we need might state, “Be like Faust!”.
8th March 2020
Text written during a stay at University College London as part of the Transmaking project where The Relais Culture Europe is a leader.
Translated by Andrij Saweneć