That Damned Woman

Old Vic

A gender swapped Faustus, set during the Great Plague of London. There were a lot of empty seats at the Old Vic due to the Great Plague of Bristol. I don’t think the theater seats anything like 500.

This isn’t Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but an entirely new play: some rather clunky prose dialogue interspersed with very decent cod-Marlovian verse. Jodie McNee is very good in the title role of Johanna Faustus: spitting out some lines in the classic RSC “I can talk faster than you” style; but also doing the modern naturalistic thing where you convince the audience you are making it up on the spot. She pretty much carries the play single handedly. She is an eager, earnest, rustic girl; intelligently confronting the church and the patriarchy of her day. (One can’t help thinking of Saint Joan.) Obviously, she isn’t Dr Faustus because women can’t be doctors, but her father is an apothecary and her mother was a wise-woman wrongly hanged for witchcraft. Given the limited chances offered to women in her society, you can see why a pact with Satan looks like a very good deal. (Marlow’s Faustus is so clever and successful in his own right that you wander what he gets out of the arrangement. The opportunity to critique Calvinism, possibly.) Warned by Mephistopheles that if she signs her name in blood she will certainly go to hell, she looks at the plague ridden streets of London and steals one of his best lines: “Now this is hell, nor am I out of it.” At the end of the first act, having struck her bad bargain she orders the devil to remove the plague from the city, forgetting that devils are notoriously good at misinterpreting instructions.

So far, so fairly interesting. But the play fails to settle on a theme, a controlling idea, or even much in the way of a plot, preferring to shower the audience with quite interesting ideas and entirely fail to develop them.

Johanna sells her soul because she thinks that Mephistopheles has her mother’s soul, and wants her back. Just like Doctor Doom. No, she sells her soul because women are powerless: she’s no different from any other woman of her time, giving up autonomy in order to survive in the world. She thinks that she can use Satan’s power to do good. She thinks that if she sells her soul and then repents, God will have her back. Her mother turns out to have gone to heaven, so the deal ensures that they can never be reunited.

She signs up to 144 years of life and the power of time travel - but only in a forward direction, so she can see what the results of her actions will be. The second act turns in a kind of science fiction. Faustus spends decades reading books so she can become the most learned person of her age. She encounters Dr Garrett and Marie Curie but regrets missing Mary Woolstancroft and Mary Shelly. She wonders if radium might literally turn out to be the philosopher’s stone; but ends up running an IT company with visionary schemes to download consciousness on to computers, abolishing death and robbing Satan of his power.

But none of the ideas stick around for long enough to go anywhere. Is Faustus supposed to be the spirit of Science in opposition to God and Satan? Or is the idea rather that Science represents a Faustian pact that could rebound on us — as implied by the reference to Frankenstein? Or are we merely being shown that men regard clever and powerful women as devilish?

There are good moments: Faustus herself is surprised that Dr Garrett is a woman; and notes that Marie Curie is allowed to win the Nobel Prize but not to vote. He scheme to upload humanity to the Cloud crashes, meaning that she has wiped out most of the human race. She is left tending a garden, giving out wisdom to the survivors and waiting for Satan to finally arrive and claim his payment. The final minutes leave us wondering whether the whole thing was a dream or a hallucination. The second act rushes past at such a pace that it is on the brink of becoming sophomoric or even farcical.

I can think of another recent work about a woman referred to as “the Doctor” in a role traditionally associated with men. Played, come to think of it by a woman named Jodie, who careers through history and bumps slightly inconsequentially into dead historical dudes and dudesses. Faustus’s enthusiasm, and her habit of talking to herself and changing direction in the middle of sentences feels a bit like the current occupant of the TARDIS, and the idea of the whole world being uploaded to a computer is pure Doctor Who.

A confused and not wholly successful piece of drama: but it did give us a lot to talk about for the rest of the evening.

No comments: