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Watermill Theatre - Faust x2

2nd to 25th March 2017.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

The Faust story goes back a long way and has many interpretations, most famously in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Goethe’s ginormous (12,000 line) poem, which he developed over nearly 60 years. In the 1940s and 50s, Philip Wayne translated the poem into English, and this is the basis of Faust x2. But working from this translation, Ian McDiarmid – who plays Faust in this Watermill production – has pruned and distilled it into a 70-minute play, still in verse, with just three characters. In doing this, he has captured the essence of the story beautifully: man sells soul to the devil in return for favours; doesn’t end well.

Faust is a disillusioned academic, “bald, half-blind and 72”. In an attempt to add some love, or at least lust, to his unfulfilled life, he conjures up a spirit of the devil: Mephisto, a very strong performance from Jacques Miche, evil personified. Having signed up in blood on Mephisto’s smartphone (not sure how that works, but I’m not too familiar with Apple’s latest features), Mephisto shows him an image of Gretchen (Daisy Fairclough), the girl of his dreams, then produces her in the flesh. Young and innocent and looking for love, Gretchen is just what Faust is after, but the age difference could be a bit of a problem. At Mephisto’s instigation, Faust wins her vicariously, with Mephisto doing the wooing using Faust’s words. Not a good idea. Mephisto defiles her and Faust’s efforts to save her don’t work.

It’s a disturbing play to watch and I left feeling rather uncomfortable, but it’s certainly gripping with strong performances from the three actors. McDiarmid’s slim-line text accentuates the tension between the three.

The apparently simple set develops into a display for pictures, images, videos and text, with a huge cross appearing, associated with Gretchen and indicating her link to God.

The transformation from the text at the start, “in the beginning was the WORD and the word was GOD” into the text at the end, “in the beginning was the DEED and the deed was SATAN” is a depressing message, but something to think about for Lent.


Review from The Guardian.

Ian McDiarmid's Goethe drama is a devil of a time

Adapted by and starring McDiarmid, this account of the Faustian pact features a fine Mephisto but doesn’t succeed in bringing the play into the 21st century

two stars
Regrets? We all have a few as we get older. Henrik Faust is 72, half-blind and balding, with a heart condition. He’s spent so much time accumulating knowledge through books that he has a deficit of feeling. He badly wants to experience love, and when he catches sight of Gretchen, he knows that she’s the one. But it’s going to be devilishly hard to get her, and there will be a price to pay.

Goethe’s version of the Faustian pact, best known from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, is a dramatic poem that runs to 12,111 lines, took him 60 years to write and is often described as unstageable. It’s not, but it is pretty indigestible in the rhyming couplets of this updated version adapted by, and starring, Ian McDiarmid. Temptation has seldom seemed quite so dull, although Jacques Miche’s callow, callous and chatty Mephisto isthe best performance of the evening. He offers a clever body-swap wheeze to ensure that Gretchen is attracted to the elderly Faust.

McDiarmid tends towards an old-fashioned actorly style, but the real issue here is that updating Faust requires more than just throwing in a lot of video design and having the contract signed in blood on a smartphone. Daisy Fairclough’s Gretchen is a totally passive figure, still stranded in the 19th century. In a more secular age, the potency of the Christian imagery is much diminished, leaving this Faust looking like an anachronism.


Review from the Daily Telegraph.

three stars
It might sound like quite a leap to go from embodying the most malignant being in a galaxy far, far away to playing a world-weary septuagenarian scholar with a dicky heart. But the undeniable thrill for fans of Star Wars in seeing Ian McDiarmid on stage at the Watermill this month lies not only in the proximity this intimate venue affords spectators to a well-known face but the points of connection between the power-mad Emperor and the very archetype of a man who, frustrated by the limits of existing science, turns to the dark side: Faust.

Indeed, it’s hard not to think that McDiarmid, who has distilled Goethe’s block-buster of a poem (using a hoary Penguin translation), and director Lisa Blair, who boldly pushes the technological envelope, are playing on our prior knowledge about Darth Vader’s boss. After a mood-setting salvo of flickering lights and ominous sounds, our initial sight of Faust suggests civilised respectability – the Scottish actor, 72, is suited, waist-coated, bespectacled, professorial. Yet once he has made his pact with Mephisto, here a cocksure, hoody-wearing youth, his Faust becomes creepiness incarnate, skulking in the shadows, his face obscured by the hood he too has adopted; Goethe meets George Lucas, if you will.

In contrast to the globe-trotting escapades of Christopher Marlowe’s more familiar tragedy, this version strips things to their essentials: a quest to obtain carnal delight with the virtuous Gretchen. If the script had a comparable simplicity, this might hit home more powerfully. Yet the ear is soon glutted by the feast of couplets and some of the phrasing is so over-ripe, it’s hard work harvesting coherent sense, especially when combined with McDiarmid’s attacking way with words, snapping slack jaws tight in icy petulance.

Despite the impressive projected visuals, suggesting a world of gizmo-assisted gratifications, it feels as though the creative team have missed a trick too in not making Faust more explicitly a figure for our times in his anguished obsession with youth.

A simple, effective theatrical device has Faust wooing Daisy Fairclough’s bright-eyed Gretchen through the proxy of Jacques Miche’s Mephisto – the latter eerily lip-synching the older man’s words. Yet the dubious rapture of possessing the body of a young man or, for that matter, “enjoying” a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter isn’t sufficiently explored. Just as Faust is left finally unsated, I wound up craving more thought-provoking matter with less logorrheic art. 


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Essential Faust

Mephisto wages much of his wickedness with a smart phone to hand in Ian McDiarmid's new version of Faust at The Watermill

Faust x2, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday March 25

Verse and video prove to be a heady combination in Faust x2, The Watermill's remarkable and latest production to be featured in its 50th anniversary year.

First published in the early decades of the 1800s, Goethe's original masterpiece was initially described as 'unstageable' in the theatre owing to its complexity, numerous characters, and sheer length.

While adeptly remaining true to the German classic's literary forms, this new version by actor and author Ian McDiarmid is instead short and sharp – the entire performance runs for 70 minutes without an interval - yet in its modern retelling, and with just three characters, sacrifices none of the tale's essential elements of dissatisfaction, seduction and doom.

For all his intellectual brilliance, the grey-suited Faust (McDiarmid) – at one point ruefully reflecting what it is to be 'bald, half-blind, and 72' – summons up the dark arts in search of the more fulfilling and sensual pleasures the 'hereditary lumber' of his past life has failed to provide.

His overwhelming feelings of frustration and longing inexorably draw him into an ill-fated pact with the Devil's representative Mephisto. Faust pledges to serve him once his own desires have been met, but becomes reckless when entranced by the beautiful Gretchen, with fateful consequences for them both.

Focusing in on the essence of such a major work, McDiarmid capitalises on the intimate space of The Watermill. Close proximity to the actors gives the audience no quarter in his absorbing and demanding depiction of the ageing, anguished, and at one point actually gut-wrenching, Faust.

Mephisto (Jacques Miche) and Gretchen (Daisy Fairclough) in turn skilfully accentuate much that the central character can only envy, each making the most of their youth and easy physicality. The Devil's man is cleverly playful, cocksure and dangerous, while the sweet-voiced Gretchen is convincingly devout and religious, an innocent whose seduction, in its bloodlust and savagery, is all the more painful to witness.

Lisa Blair directs this fast-paced and imaginative production, with its edgy combination of black magic and new technology – Mephisto wages much of his wickedness with a smart phone to hand.

In similar vein, the set design by Georgia Lowe complements dazzling contemporary images projected throughout by video designer Zsolt Balogh. One sequence – strikingly accentuating Faust's overwhelming sense of physical and mental disturbance – is sure to stay in the memory.


There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("daring and provocative, bracingly challenging... wonderfully rounded performances" - 4 stars), Oxford Times ("this modern Faust is devilishly good" - 4 stars), The Stage ("a punchy retelling of Faust for our age undermined by issues of clarity" - 3 stars), Reviews Hub ("an interesting and thankfully short interpretation of this familiar story" - 3 stars).