You mightn’t know that ‘faust’ is Latin for lucky, or auspicious. There’s more than a little irony, then, in Christopher Marlowe’s application of the word, a name, for his intellectually gifted character. Was it that Marlowe had a disdain for academia, seeing how clueless even, or especially, the most educated can be? We can probably never know.
What qualifies as lucky, or auspicious, is having the judgment to go along to Bell Shakespeare’s current co-production (with the Queensland Theatre Company) of Faustus, which would seem to bridge time and literary diversity in embracing something of Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr Faustus and Goethe’s later Faust (you can rely on Teutonic economy to trim the title in the interests of efficiency).
Of course, Goethe laid special claim to the story, by dint of heritage: it started life as a German legend. In that country, I gather, it’s always been well-known, but it was Marlowe who popularised it in England and Goethe who reworked it 200-odd years later. This production would seem to rely most heavily on Marlowe, particularly with regard to Faust himself, for whom it’s hard to have sympathy, given his apparent foolishness, rashness, selfishness and avarice, for knowledge and all things. He was the classic, quintessential ‘I want it and I want it now!’ short-sighted hedonist, which is what gives Gow’s telling such impetus in 2011, when everyone seems to be positively and unashamedly Faustian. But I’d go a step further, since there seems to be much in common with the versions that were circulating in 16th-century Germany, in which both Faust and Mephistopheles had an incorrigible, unmitigated, unmediated and seemingly (as well as literally) irredeemable, greed-is-good vulgarity. And yet there is something of Goethe’s unsatisfied, unfulfilled, restless scholar. Perhaps, in our idler moments, we’re all at risk of succumbing to Faustian temptations. Internet porn, anyone?
The brilliant adaptation is by QTC’s ex-artistic director and erstwhile playwright Michael Gow. Gow and Bell. Talk about a power couple. Bell takes on the delectable role of Mephistophilis (is this Mephistopheles with syphilis, which I assume he has), the devil’s right-hand man and plays it with relish, but with customary, trademark, painstakingly measured restraint. It’s a finely calibrated performance indeed, just as you might expect. He adopts a broad, old school Australian accent and dons a suit. I always knew the devil would front in corporate garb. Bell’s every word and affectation bespeaks, elucidates and embellishes his character, without a hint of excess. It might be trite to observe mastery from one of our acknowledged masters, but it’s a distinct, edifying pleasure to rediscover it each and every time Mr Bell walks onto a stage, particularly if it be one of his own, as it were. But, as is also usual, and in this Mr Gow would appear not to dissent or deviate, a distinguished cast has been built around JB, like so many hand-hewn stones that make a grand edifice.
Ben Winspear is Faustus and he does much more than merely declaim: we acquire a palpable sense of his frustration; his itch that can only be scratched by having it all, even if it means losing it all. Like the master and his other colleagues, Winspear’s technical craft never falters; for students of it, diction and projection as well as an intensive, one-night NIDA workshop. Vanessa Downing’s Hecate, Catherine Terracini’s Belzebub, Kathryn Marquet’s Gretchen and, above all, Jason Klarwein’s Lucifer all excel and are just this side of thrilling. Klarwein plays his part with faultless, slick-as panache, while Marquet transforms Gretchen from a Little Red Riding Hood innocent to unwittingly worldly-wise, as if ruined and tormented by a cunning fox. Hers is, in a way, the epitome of ruination we all face as we move from childhood, down the ladder of life towards the inexorable grave, gleaning unhappy experience along the way.
Matching all the on-stage work are a bevy of beautiful craftspersons behind the scenes, who work collegiately to transform the rather humble Sydney Opera House Playhouse into something resembling a coven, or the unconscious, or something at once familiar and tangible, yet ethereal and just beyond reach; it’s a tightrope walk executed perfectly and with the utmost simplicity. Any more clues, I fear, would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, Gow has exercised yet more wisdom in recruiting the likes of Jonathon Oxlade as designer, Jason Glenwright as lighting designer, Phil Slade as composer and Chris More as video designer.
Everyone involved seems to subscribe to a less-is-more or, at least, enough-is-enough philosophy of theatrical production. It all works. Superbly. Nothing could really be improved. There are no miracles performed. No rules are trashed. Nothing revolutionary takes place. Yet within the context of contemporary mainstream theatre, it’s as good as it gets. Or better.
If only Faust had Facebook, he mightn’t have become so bored. Mm. Then again.
Make sure you beg, borrow, steal or otherwise obtain a ticket to Gow-Bell’s Faustus. Even if it means selling your grandmother, or something still closer to home.
The details: Faustus is at the Sydney Opera House until July 30. Tickets on the venue website.