Depictions of hell vary greatly depending on who you ask. Dante would describe hellfire and damnation in great detail over several poetic pages, whereas Jean-Paul Satre would concisely bring it closer to home as ‘other people.’ To Johanna Faustus, driven protagonist of Chris Bush’s adaptation, she cannot imagine a worse fate than the 16th century plague-ravaged London she finds herself trapped in; her healing talents and intelligence ignored, her gender disdained and one “let’s find you a man” away from snapping. She’s desperate to escape, would sell her very soul to do it, and someone is willing to listen.
The Dr Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s original was more a hubristic intellectual, dissatisfied and bored with life, who summons and subsequently bargains with the Devil himself partly just to see if he could. Johanna is different – she is a woman on a mission, and Jodie McNee performs with whipcrack energy, firing off her lines with machine gun-like intensity. She actively seeks out Lucifer to free her from the awful existence she endures, reasoning that hell itself would pale in comparison and that measured against the men of the day the devil is a ‘catch’. A pact is signed, power is given and Faustus is uplifted, only shackled with different manacles. Her drive for freedom rages through the course of the play, from gender roles to human bondage to mortality itself.
The writer and director use the concept of Faustus as a starting point, but are far from bound to it (in a thematically appropriate way); the devil’s power takes many forms, and Faustus is able to take great leaps forward in time, sometimes taking her backwards ideas of society with her which adds social commentary to proceedings. Faustus also learns early on that power itself is not the answer, as Mephistopheles reminds her; “I am the sword you wield; mind you don’t cut yourself.” Played with relish by Danny Lee Wynter, the slimy hell-kin is her constant companion through the years, yearning to unleash his power in impish ways, but ultimately playing the long game. In between tempting Faustus with motivational-poster quotes to command him to grand mischief, he gets to deliver some of the best comedic lines to occasionally relieve the weighty burden of the atmosphere.
The play starts dark; a wooden contraption, reminiscent of a peasant mud-hut with straw for carpet (“the enemies live in the nice houses”), and projected shadows dancing on the walls. The murky circular structure seems like a tunnel, or even a gullet, swallowing the ambiance. Over the course of Johanna’s journey, the walls disassemble, the lights brighten and extra props come and go to hint at the time advancement along with her breakthroughs. But hell has it’s levels, and Faustus cannot fight forever.
Capable, desperate and angry, Faustus: That Damned Woman takes the source material and uplifts it to a modern audience, spreading the commentary out over hundreds of years, talking about the effect of cause and consequence, and the ripples our actions have along with the price we’re willing to pay. After all, if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, what about the road away from it?
Faustus: That Damned Woman plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 21 March.