Faustus has been cast as a woman before – at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2018 – but Chris Bush’s idea-stuffed reimagining of the play takes things further. Johanna Faustus (Jodie McNee) is the daughter of an impoverished apothecary at the time of the plague. She thirsts for the knowledge denied to her as a woman.
She also has a personal reason for summoning the devil. She yearns, not to “heap up gold” as in Christopher Marlowe’s play, but to ascertain whether her mother, who was put to death for being a witch, was in league with Lucifer. In exchange for a glimpse of the devil’s necromantic book – and eternal damnation – she gains 144 years of life, the ability to leap forwards – but not back – in time and a diabolic servant in the form of Danny Lee Wynter’s silky Mephistopheles.
McNee is an elemental Faustus. She’s compelling and adrenalized, a near-immortal who never sleeps, and devotes her entire self to learning. There’s a dash of the Doctor to her Faustus; she has the questing energy of a time lord – as well as shades of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. She doesn’t waste her powers on impish trickery and winding up the Pope, instead she tries to beat the devil at his own game and become a force for good in the world.
As she slides forwards in time, she encounters other pioneers in the field of healing – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Marie Curie – women who transcended social constraints, who changed the world and the role of women in it. In the beginning Mephistopheles offers Faustus the opportunity to go through life as a man, to free herself from the pressure to marry and reproduce, but she rejects it. Why change her form, when she can change the system?
The further forward in time the play goes, and the more exposition is required, the more fitfully paced it becomes. Caroline Byrne’s production, while intense and febrile in places, gets bogged down. It contains some vivid moments, a fragmented opening scene in which Johanna appears to use supernatural means to observe her mother’s death, and sequence in which she wreaks revenge on those responsible for condemning her (though the brutality of this jars with Faustus’ later trajectory). But there are issues with pacing that Byrne never resolves.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s striking set consists of dark tunnel, the walls of which provide screens that images can be projected on, but which is also suggestive of an abyss.
Though the interplay between Mephistopheles and Faustus gets side-lined and the scenes in which Faustus enters the modern age, as a tech visionary who dreams of a digital afterlife, feel muddled and hurried, there’s an exhilarating quality to the way Bush stretches the source material, the way she breaks the play apart and rebuilds it.