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Justin Murray

Review: FAUSTUS: THAT DAMNED WOMAN at the Lyric Hammersmith

In the Hammersmith Lyric’s Faustus: That Damned Woman, Johanna Faustus does not have the title of Doctor when we first meet her. She’s just Johanna the apothecary’s daughter, obsessed with her mother, hanged as a witch.

Faustus: That Damned WomanJodie McNee as Johanna Faustus in Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Her interest as a character comes not from her intelligence and arrogance, but from her single-minded focus and drive.

Make a deal with the devil for her immortal soul? This girl can. Form a partnership with lower devil Mephistopheles? This girl can. Use her new powers to take revenge on those who hanged her mother as a witch? This girl…you get the idea.

But her Kill Bill-style revenge fantasy only satisfies so far. Like a recovering addict, she vows to best the devil by only using her powers for good, sowing seeds in every generation and jumping ahead in time to make further leaps towards cheating humanity’s death. But can she prevent the devil from tricking her into using her powers for evil?

Chris Bush’s pleasingly high-concept, but somewhat uneven reimagining of the Christopher Marlowe play mixes blank verse and prose, dialogue and direct address with gay abandon in an effort to traverse the epic journey it’s set out to tell.

Some of the dramaturgical choices raise questions - at times, Faustus will pick up a prop as part of a movement sequence, put it down again immediately, and we’ll never see it again. It’s unclear why some of these choices have been made.

The movement is ragged, seemingly deliberately unpolished - a world away from the gorgeous clarity of movement director Shelley Maxwell’s horses in Equus.

The monolithic set is also not entirely pulling its weight - it feels a little too much of a constant for a show that jumps so far in scope, and doesn’t transform at all until late on in the game.

Elsewhere, though, there are some brilliant ideas from director Caroline Byrne, including a memorable ‘split-screen’ opening scene. Jodie McNee, meanwhile, shines as Faustus, her demented energy carrying the piece across each stage of Johanna’s emotional journey.

It is in its second half that the production unleashes its full salvo of crazy - even by the standards of the original, which summons the ghosts of Helen of Troy amongst others.

With Faustus’ time-jumping abilities in play, the whole thing feels like a demented Dr Who episode (in a great way). It’s in this second half that the piece really flies. Coupled with a great little twist of the knife at the finish, it’s enough to balance out the odder elements.

Conceptually and thematically, this Faustus isn’t for the faint of heart. It won’t satisfy everyone, but overall the transforming of John Faustus the arrogant doctor into Johanna Faustus the time-travelling lost daughter is a justified rendering of the original, albeit in a kick-ass feminist-as-hell way which also explores the paths we are on as a species.

Byrne and Bush’s Faustus intelligently reframes the original as a story of women across the ages struggling to do good against the evils that beset them, and certain moments will stick in my mind long after the lights go out. Rough and ready, but worth your time.

Faustus: That Damned Woman Tickets