To be fair, every production has to take some liberties with the original and cut
heavily because Goethe’s lofty verse drama (especially the rambling part two) is
unstageable as written, and in their programme Vesturport describe their version
as “A new Faust. Inspired by Goethe.” But, unlike their innovatively physical
treatments of Romeo and Juliet, Woyzeck and Metamorphosis, this show falls flat.
Director Gísli Örn Gardarsson and other co-writing members of the company
have devised the setting of an old people’s home at Yuletide. Retired actor Johann is
so sick of life that he starts to hang himself with the Christmas tree lights but is saved
by the diabolical Mefisto who persuades him to perform the one great part that has
so far eluded him: Faust. With this play-within-a-play structure, the action alternates
between the aged residents clumsily acting out excepts from Goethe and the main
drama itself showing the magically rejuvenated Johann’s doomed romance with nurse
Greta’s alter ego.
Presumably the use of the framing device was intended to make the story
more accessible to modern audiences but the result is bathetic, as any real dramatic
suspense is undercut by comic interruptions from mundane routines such as
synchronised wheelchair exercises. The tragic plight of the protagonists is too often
coarsened to schlock horror, while Goethe’s poetically philosophical musings on
fundamental questions of faith, love, happiness and the meaning of life is debased to a
facile rhyming which becomes extremely irritating.
If the heights and depths of Goethe’s text are not attained, the staging certainly
achieves spectacular ups and downs. Axel Jóhnannesson’s design features a net
suspended above the stalls, on which performers hurl themselves with athletic
abandon, while the trapeze is well used for more lyrical, romantic moments to
suggest soaring emotions. Though prone to lapse into pantomime, there are also a few
genuinely shocking moments amid the mayhem, when sudden violence highlights the
fragility of life. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis does not make the same
impact as in their previous collaborations with Vesturport, though its brooding quality
nicely offsets the cheesiness of Wham’s Last Christmas.
As the older Johann, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson conveys considerable pathos in the
ham actor’s world weariness, though Björn Hlynur Haraldsson could give the younger
Johann more passion. As their double love-object Greta, Unnur Ösp Stefansdottir
changes from good-humoured kindness to abandoned desire. Hilmir Snaer Gudnason
is the charismatically over-the-top villain Mefisto, and his sidekick Lilith is played
with provocative punkiness by Nina Dögg Filipusdóttir.
However, despite all its entertaining energy, this is a Faust that lacks