It’s an impressive tale, to say the least. The concept of a man so consumed by a thirst for knowledge as to barter his own soul for the wisdom and services of Lucifer’s leading general Mephistopheles is so innately compelling it’s been tackled by everyone from Marlowe to The Simpsons. Such is the myth of Faust and the premise of Queensland Theatre Company’s latest collaboration with Bell Shakespeare Company – Faustus.
Under different circumstances, the aforesaid production could also be described as impressive. A genre-defying reworking of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Goethe’s Faust overseen and actualised by some of Brisbane’s most notable theatrical figures incorporating everything from hand puppets to opera, Faustus could feasibly be considered, in a different context, a daring theatrical experiment.
In credit to the creative ensemble behind the work, they do attempt some quite daring manoeuvres. Michael Gow’s decision to fuse Goethe’s and Marlowe’s contrasting iterations of the Faustian myth is ambitious enough before one considers his decision to implement excerpts of works like The King James Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost within the narrative. Jonathon Oxlade’s jagged, almost-steampunk, set design is an impressive blend of classic staging techniques and more contemporary flourishes – scrims blending seamlessly with advanced multimedia work.
Ultimately, though, Faustus is not so much daring and experimental as unfocussed and disappointing. Being kinder, one could describe it as both – but it’s certainly more the latter than the former. The difference is largely a matter of context. Were Faustus the product of independent theatre-makers of scant resources and unproven talents, it would be an intriguing (albeit still somewhat unsatisfying) production. That same work coming from some of Brisbane’s most respected theatre-makers, however, can only really be characterised as bitterly underwhelming.
Outside the design efforts of the aforementioned Oxlade and lighting designer Jason Glenwright, no aspect of the work feels fully developed. Michael Gow’s script is a disaster. Presenting the irresistible premise of a man literally selling his soul to the devil, Gow delivers a rambling, incoherent patchwork of ideas and references as confounding as it is toothless. The work inexplicably darts in and out of poorly-realised rhyme schemes, references events that never seem to occur and prioritises comedy above any form of pathos or contemplation.
The performances featured in the work, meanwhile, range from the utterly exceptional to the depressingly banal. Vanessa Downing’s work as Hecate (and countless alternate characters) is simply magnificent – twisted, humorous and unfailingly precise. Kathryn Marquet’s work as the titular character’s tragic lover Gretchen, while suspiciously similar to her performance in Gow’s The Crucible, provides the only genuinely evocative moments of the production.
Jason Klarwein’s Lucifer, by contrast, is a preening, caricature of the lord of darkness. John Bell’s Mephistopheles is a leaden rumble through Australian bent cop clichés and Ben Winspear’s performance as Faustus doesn’t suggest a troubled and conflicted soul as much as a particularly uncomfortable Rik Mayall impression. In actual fact, there isn’t a supposedly malignant character within the piece that doesn’t seem almost buffoonish.
What one ultimately witnesses throughout the work’s entirety is the tragedy of experimentation without design. In crafting the work, Gow has thrown any and every possible idea at the stage – screen projections rub shoulders with hand puppets, straightforward dialogue cavorts madly with rhyming couplets and opera stumbles into heavy metal – but to no apparent end. No comment is made and no empathetic experience embodied by Faustus. It’s essentially an exercise in pastiche and aesthetics.
This is why, under a different set of circumstances, one could feasibly view Faustus as an impressive work. The obvious impulse is to applaud such an all-inclusive, unrepentantly chaotic approach to creativity. Again, if such an approach were adopted by developing theatre-makers, one would certainly award them respect. It would be doubly impressive given the source of the work in question is an unarguably literary classic.
That same approach, however, is nevertheless decidedly unimpressive coming from arguable veterans of Brisbane’s theatre community. Whereas youth and inexperience excuse a lack of focus, wisdom and knowledge condemn such an oversight. Speaking frankly, everyone involved in the production is capable of better and, with the resources and experience at their disposal, their apparent refusal to strive to deliver as much is both frustrating and disappointing.
Perhaps it’s unfair, but one expects more than daring from such companies as Queensland Theatre and Bell Shakespeare. At such a level, it’s no longer enough to have ambition. One also needs vision.
Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare present
adaptation by Michael Gow
Director Michael Gow
Venue: Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre
Dates: 30 May – 25 June 2011
Tickets: $30 – $60
Bookings: www.queenslandtheatre.com.au | Brisbane Powerhouse 07 3358 8600
Sydney Opera House, Playhouse: 30 June – 24 July. Bookings: 02 9250 777
Illawara Performing Arts Centre: 27 – 30 July. Bookings: 02 4224 5999