The imposing, inscrutable faade of 21 Wapping Lane, reveals nothing of the riches that writhe behind its walls. So even if you have to make a pact with the devil to get a ticket to see Punkdrunk’s production of Faust currently taking over this warehouse in Wapping, do it. Selling your soul would be a small price to pay to immerse yourself in this electrifying tour de force.
Once inside this vast former archive building, you enter another world that perfectly captures Faust’s heaven and hell. The stage as it were, consumes all five floors and is a radical exploration of one man’s downfall, set in part in 1950s America, and is one of the most spell binding pieces of physical theatre I have ever seen.
You are encouraged to wander round this dark labyrinthine complex in whatever direction takes your fancy, stumbling on performances as you find them, all the while wearing a Venetian carnival mask that transforms you into a faceless voyeur.
With such a huge space to play with set designer Robin Harvey hasn’t created a backdrop as such, more the ne plus ultra of art installations, a grandiose cabinet des curiosities, left for your delectation, filled with the most remarkable delights, like the authentic vials in Faust’s laboratory or a cracked picture frame – the perfect touch in an insalubrious motel room. The attention to detail, scope and imagination behind each room is staggering.
Roaming through this production you feel like a baffled, half terrified Alice in Wonderland. It can be unnerving and set you on edge, being left alone to explore in the dark, but this mixture of trepidation and expectation, adds to your experience. It also enables the production to play on all of your senses so you become aware of the smell of the pine forests, the scrunch of the needles under foot, the scent of ground coffee in the diner, and it will play on your sense of taste too, if you are lucky enough to grab a drink when Mephisto is behind the bar in a certain scene.
For roughly an hour I wandered to and fro between floors absorb by this intricate spectacle, poking around the rooms in awe of the craftsmanship. I then encountered and followed a succession of scenes so stunning, so peerless, that on leaving the venue I felt as if I had been booted out of Eden.
The story of Faust’s pact with the devil and the seduction of the gentle Gretel, is split into seven scenes that will have you careering down dimly lit corridors and tumbling down stairwells to keep up with actors as they stride between floors and on to their next act. Due to the nature of the piece and the vagaries of chance, everybody will, much like life, come away with a different narrative, a different experience.
The final scene between Faust and the devil, in the dank dark bowels of the building, will leave you transfixed, replete as it is with aerial acrobatics to rival De la Guarda and a central performance from Vinicius Salles, as Mephistopheles that will haunt you. His compact powerful physique, dancer’s graceful moves and gymnast’s athleticism makes his a ferocious, dynamic performance, whether he is fighting Valentine, seducing Gretchen or jostling with Faust. But it is the collective energy, skill and audaciousness of this company under the visionary director and choreographer Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle that makes Faust so extreme and intoxicating.
Produced in collaboration with National Theatre, Faust is theatre as it should be: an indelible assault on the senses and an experience which will stay with you and enrich you for a lifetime. Theatre does not get any better than this.