Lowland Hall, Ingliston, Edinburgh
August, 2009


Romanian director Silviu Purcărete works well with large companies. In 1996, his reconstruction of Aeschylus’ tetralogy Les Danaïdes featured two opposing groups of 50 performers; now the cast of his version of Goethe’s Faust includes Faust, Mephistopheles, a septet of convent-school Gretchens and over 70 assorted angels, demons, spirits etc (plus a rock quartet). As we sit on a bank of seats at one end of the vast show hall at Ingliston, the company execute remarkable tableaux and effects: making the floorboards quake from beneath of the huge, derelict schoolroom in which Faust is discovered, writhing across what seems like acres of floor space, even trucking on and off entire sections of floor and back wall, revealing a still more cavernous space behind the stage area.

The coup comes a little more than halfway into the 130-minute performance. After Faust (long-time Purcărete associate Ilie Gheorghe) uses the powers granted by his infernal pact to sleep with his beloved Gretchen, the sinuous, insinuating Mephistopheles of Ofelia Popii (the actor is female, though the character seems to change gender as required) invites him to a Walpurgisnacht sabbat. We too are invited: the stage and wall slide back again and pig-faced supernumeraries coax us out of our seats and along an avenue of real grass into… well, simply into an inferno. Bestiality, murder, grotesquerie on a phenomenal scale. Bodies contort on gibbets which cut through the crowd on forklift trucks. The walls are lined with huge portraits that would give even Jake and Dinos Chapman pause for thought. A hellish, hypnotic rock riff pounds out incessantly. An entire wall is curtained with firework flames. A rhinoceros stands almost unnoticed in a corner.

One of the topics of discussion in Edinburgh this year is how far reviewers should include or avoid “spoiler” information, but however much detail I were to give about this segment, you would still be unprepared for the reality. I have not seen such a complex, phenomenal staging since Janusz Wisniewski brought his The End Of Europe to the Fringe here in 1985, half my lifetime ago, and Purcărete’s Faust has a wealth of intellectual content to match its visceral impact. (After all that, it even manages to bring off Faust’s ultimate redemption.) This production by the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu has already sold out, but I fervently advise anyone within striking distance of Edinburgh this week to call in every favour you can think of in order to secure a ticket.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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