Theatre in Preview
Doctor Faustus, an elderly scholar, tires of knowing only academic knowledge and makes a pact with the devil. He wants to really experience life, and heâ€™ll sell his soul to do it. Lucifer agrees. Faustus will be made young again for 24 years, during which time he can do whatever he likes, but at the end of it he will go to hell and be damned for all eternity.
The story has a rich history, originating in old German folklore. It was extremely popular in the 16th century, when it was often told in puppet shows, and you can find echoes of it everywhere from â€˜The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydeâ€™ to â€˜The Picture of Dorian Grayâ€™ right through to 'The Simpsons'. The two best known versions are Marloweâ€™s play, â€˜Doctor Faustusâ€™ and Goetheâ€™s opera, â€˜Faustâ€™. In this production, director and writer Michael Gow has combined elements from both these, along with poetry written around the themes of redemption and heaven and hell, plus parts of the bible. The religious undertones of the play are clear when you think of the serpent tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Ah, symbolism.
As well as youth, Faustus gains new powers. He can conjure up the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, or meet Alexander the Great (anyone who saw Gowâ€™s â€˜Toy Symphonyâ€™ may be reminded of that fantastical world). Like many men before him, Faustus is quickly corrupted by his new power. In the words of Jason Klarwein who plays Lucifer, â€œFaustus becomes lascivious and goes down a path of damnation in this rock star kind of way.â€ It could have been my imagination but it appeared like Jasonâ€™s eyes just glinted with something a little too much like envy.
While the story is rich and engrossing enough, this production has even more to offer. Jason describes the set as â€œa cross between an Elizabethan theatre and some sort of torture deviceâ€, (thereâ€™s that glint again). â€œItâ€™s about creating illusions that are very attractive, through this infernal stage-machine,â€ he explains. He also promises amazing AV, a German lied, wacky masks and, yes, even a little bit of death metal (can I see horns starting to grow?).
John Bell is another attraction and I saw him in a show a few years back (â€˜Anatomy Titusâ€™). Two guys were having a massive fight and John was leaning against a wall watching them. He has such a presence that I found myself watching him just being still rather than the action. The idea that in â€˜Faustusâ€™ he plays Mephistopheles, a demon who Jason says is â€œbasically a used car salesmanâ€, has me tickled pink.
These demons love taking other guises, and Jason gets to play many roles. â€œI play the Pope, a megalomaniac emperor who is secretly in love with Alexander the Great, a very boring scholar who wants to see Helen of Troy, and Valentine, Gretchenâ€™s brother,â€ (Gretchen is a schoolgirl Faustus gets lascivious with). However, itâ€™s the part of Lucifer thatâ€™s been the trickiest. â€œWell, how do you play the devil?â€ Jason muses. â€œIs the devil a charming person? Or is he kind of a ratbag? The way I see it, the devil is a very proud person. His sin was pride. Heâ€™s an upstart who decided he would take on the order of things.â€
And where does making such â€˜sinfulâ€™ choices as Faustus did, leave you as a human being? In Goetheâ€™s opera, he is redeemed and goes to heaven. In Marloweâ€™s play the unfortunate (I love that â€˜faustusâ€™ means lucky in Latin) man winds up in hell. And in Gowâ€™s adaptation? â€œOh, Iâ€™m not going to give that away,â€ laughs Jason (and itâ€™s a laugh worthy of Tim Curry at his most evil). â€œOnce you think the playâ€™s one thing, it changes into another. One style shifts into another. Once you get a grapple on it, it transforms in front of your eyes. It ends up in a dark, empty place, but the ride is amazing,â€ (definite horns now, and perhaps the beginning of a tail).
â€œUltimately, itâ€™s a tragedy. But like all good tragedy, it has elements of comedy. You need the pathos,â€ (his Darkness has risen!). â€œBasically itâ€™s a kooky play about going to hell.â€ And with a swish of cape, a clack of cloven feet and a superfluously theatrical puff of smoke, Jason is off to rehearsal.
â€˜Faustusâ€™ plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse from May 30 to June 25.