The drive in British theatre to stage more plays by and about women has led to a spate of gender-swapped classics, reexamining and recontextualising their patriarchal power dynamics.
Christopher Marlowe’s snappily titled The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is the latest, and, on paper at least, it’s an ideal candidate. As Chris Bush, the playwright who’s adapted it for the Lyric, writes in her programme notes, Marlowe’s Johann Faustus, a wealthy and respected scholar, already had a pretty sweet deal: why would he bother selling his soul?
In her version, Johanna Faustus is a poor woman whose mother was executed for witchcraft. She’s determined never to become indentured to a man but struggles to survive alone, so feels she has little to lose when Lucifer offers her 144 years as a time-travelling demigod in exchange for her eternal soul. As she glibly notes: “If you knew the lives us women lead, you’d realise the devil is a catch.”
The set-up is sound, then, but the execution is hopeless. Modern-day parables are difficult to pull off (just look at the mess the National Theatre made with Saint George and the Dragon), and director Caroline Byrne’s production misses the mark by some distance. There’s something fawning about it, as if it’s forever winking at the audience to make sure we all get it.
It also squanders Bush’s most interesting addition to Faustus mythos. As Johanna makes increasingly desperate use of her ability to jump forward in time, she visits our present and, later, the distant future, something that opens up all manner of allegorical possibilites. But these scenes feel rushed – half-formed and cliched vignettes rather than the culmination of an epic journey.
It ends up a rather flimsy production that takes too long to say too little.