The Scottish capital’s main rep theater is known for sturdy productions of the classics. It just did Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” with Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” up next. In this context, it’s all the more extraordinary to find such a demanding, expansive and ambitious staging of Goethe’s notoriously unwieldy soul-selling, two-part poetic drama “Faust.” This is helmer Mark Thomson’s company operating at its inventive and imaginative best.
Staged over two nights or in an occasional all-day marathon, John Clifford’s brilliant translation makes Goethe’s 19th-century epic an urgent play for today. The journey taken by the bookish Faust after he trades his soul to Mephistopheles, in return for the chance to “scale the Himalayas of sensual pleasure,” is one to which all of us can relate. This is a Faust for the consumer-led society, one that seeks instant gratification and no repercussions.
In the first part, Faust (Paul Brennen) is concerned with sins of the flesh, seducing the innocent Gretchen (Ruth Connell) even as she tends to her ailing mother (Isabella Jarrett), and indulging in three-in-the-bed sex with lascivious creatures of no certain gender. In the second part, grown more cynical than ever, he is a rampant capitalist, displacing homes and ordering military action to bolster his despotic lust for power.
Yet, played by Brennen as a nervous, neurotic figure in a suit and the epitome of the emotionally repressed Brit, this Faust rarely finds happiness in his conquests. “I thought you wanted to explore the limits of human experience,” says Dugald Bruce Lockhart’s ultra-smooth Mephistopheles when Faust complains of being made to eat a meal made from the brains of children. “Well, yes,” he replies. “But within limits.”
It’s a funny line, typical of a script that ranges from the poetic to the profane and one that sums up Clifford’s central thesis that we can’t have it all without consequences.
The cynicism and despair that urge Faust forward find a release in his amoral escapades, but never a sense of satisfaction. His behavior mirrors the peaks and troughs of manic depression, repeatedly swinging from guilt to elation and back again. But however great the highs, Faust’s actions are psychotic and, by extension, so too are those of our own acquisitive society.
If that sounds like a weighty analysis, there’s no getting away from the seriousness of this enterprise. Yet there is also such anarchic energy and a flamboyant sense of fun that it never feels like a dry treatise.
Clifford has twice worked with iconoclastic Catalan helmer Calixto Bieito (on translations of Calderon’s “Life Is a Dream” and Fernando de Rojas’ “Celestina” in the Edinburgh Intl. Festivals of 1998 and 2004) and something of Bieito’s emotional fearlessness has rubbed off here.
You see it in his language, which can be as brutal as the scene where Mephistopheles sexually assaults a prostitute (fully justifying the theater’s “adults only” warning), but you also see it in his willingness to venture into tender areas to do with bereavement and sexual identity, which, in their own way, are just as risky.
Neither Clifford nor Thomson revels in the dark side, however, in a production that is graphic without being titillating. On Francis O’Connor’s wide open stage, framed by two towering scaffolds that double as bookshelves and climbing frames, Thomson rises to the open-ended challenge of a play that is more free-form poem than tightly structured drama. It’s quirky and colorful, using every dimension of the stage space, and you never know quite what will happen next.
If it isn’t as emotionally satisfying as a conventional, well-made play, especially as we reach the end of the more muted second part, it is never less than engaging, thanks to two authoritative central performances and the boldness of the artistic team.