sat 04/07/2020

Faust, Young Vic Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Faust, Young Vic Theatre

Faust, Young Vic Theatre

Icelandic version of Goethe's masterpiece too acrobatic for its own good

Goethe of course wanted to infuse his then fragmented culture - the late 18th century - with something as apparently unifying as Shakespeare, though the German writer's country, as we now know it, didn't exist for another 100 years. When he was writing, Shakespeare most emphatically had a country; yet for all that manifest Elizabethan certainty of historical purpose, Shakespeare seems to have been in the midst of it a happy accident. Almost everything about Goethe was deliberate: considered, elongated, thorough, unremittingly profound - in short, classically Teutonic.

This of course goes for his greatest work, even if the profundity of Part Two of Faust morphs into a giant episodic puzzle of, yes, considered mysticism, which renders it unstageable. The drama, and what makes Faust famous, is all in Part One: the brilliant character of Mephistopheles, Faust's blood-signed pact with the Devil, the seduction - in some contemporary German productions the rape - of Gretchen, Walpurgisnacht.

That is my perhaps embarrassingly abbreviated understanding of the play (also a vast poem). From Iceland, the Vesturport company's two-hour-plus staging, just opened at the Young Vic, puts it somewhere between Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and Billy Smart's circus. At the start, the characters are assembled in wheelchairs for a Christmas entertainment overseen by a male and female nurse. One old chap in a manky dressing gown, former actor Johann (Thorsteinn Gunnarson), wants in his dotage to play Faust; another collapsed resident - they're obviously in a sanatorium for the old and infirm - seems to die in his wheelchair, only to resurrect as Mephistopheles, tearing off a rubber mask to reveal a painted face not unlike Jack Nicholson's in Batman.

From geriatrics to acrobatics: slung over the audience is a bouncy net into which actors - devils, sprites - shoot and tumble, while Gretchen (Unnur Ösp Stefansdottir), transformed from the nurse, descends on a trapeze (pictured below right). The elderly Gunnarson is replaced by Björn Jlynur Haraldsson as a handsome young Faust and love is supposed to be in the air. But in fact the best thing in the air remain the tumblers, doing the splits, somersaulting, sitting upside down, catapulting onto the stage; with so much kinetic technique to admire, one strains to detect any tension or narrative, or even a spark of eroticism, developing between what should be a lustily re-aroused sage and his victim-lover - or indeed much of the play at all.

Gretchen_ResizedIn fairness, director Gísli Örn Gardarsson states it's "adapted from Goethe" and there's nothing wrong with concertinaing what can be an 18-hour epic into two-plus hours of vigorous theatre-précis, but it should be intelligent and concise. (If you're ever in Berlin, go and see Michael Thalheimer's distilled staging of Part One at the Deutsches Theater, still in repertoire after six years - unimaginable in any UK theatre - which is both those things, but also aggressively theatrical.)

Vesturport's is enjoyable enough, but flailing and woolly at the edges: fatal if you're aiming to put on something even vaguely resembling Goethe. It's hard to know why the Icelanders, commendably delivering their text in idiomatic English, have chosen him at all when they could have plumped for, say, Ayckbourn or just flagged up their Faust as a circus. And it's no good having a Mephistopheles (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) who, though he jiggers and twists in a suitably devilish way, also savagely shouts the part like a rookie thesp who's decided you can be sinister by being rasping and loud.

A whirring soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - big rock in the Walpurgisnacht scene, rightly - helps lend this Faust a bit of pop-cultural heft but doesn't alter the production's essential problem: it tells us nothing about the original or moves it on in any way.

  • Faust at the Young Vic until 30 October


Love it!! Went with my college and was amazed by how the set was used. Plus a fantastic story played by an equally fantastic actors.

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