Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 1 October, 2010

Five writers: not often a good sign. Four core members of the Icelandic Vesturport company including director Gísli Örn Garðarsson, plus Carl Grose, presumably for some polishing of the English translation. No credit given to Goethe, although Garðarsson’s programme note makes clear that it is his version of the Faust story, thoroughly filleted, which provided the basis for this new version.
This tale begins in an old people’s home on Christmas Eve, when ageing actor Johann (Thorsteinn Gunnarsson), after pondering life’s imponderables and wishing that he had had a chance to play in Faust, finds that his chess partner is not a fellow inmate but Mefisto. Enter a couple of subordinate demons, with one of whom (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) Johann/Faust body-swaps after the devilish but undefined pact is signed. He then pursues his yearning for young Greta, who in this version is a nurse in the home. Some by-play with a Walpurgisnacht episode, the murder of Greta’s brother, and then Faust’s final prayer for redemption. And that’s your two hours’ worth.
Vesturport first came to British attention with their revelatory Romeo And Juliet, which used aerial and trapeze sequences as a metaphor for the soarings and tumblings of love. Since then, both they as a company and Garðarsson as a performer have become known for acrobaticky theatre work. This can make for exciting spectacles, as here when much of the human/demonic contention takes place on a crawl net extending above the heads of the entire stalls audience.
But it can also be meaningless and confusing: Hell is down there – we know this because the demons first spring up from trapdoors – so what are they doing also inhabiting the angels’ space above? A number of other moments likewise look superficially clever but a moment’s thought renders them contradictory and bewildering, such as Greta’s response (or rather lack of response) to the body-swap. Saying that Goethe’s version is sprawling and sometimes incoherent is not much of an excuse. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score is effective but not extraordinary (it would have been so if they had recorded their own version of “Last Christmas”, instead of the production using Wham!’s original). I think Garðarsson intended to bring Faust back to full life by giving it a big jolt of electricity, but he has misjudged the charge and fried it instead.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage