Faust, Theatertreffen

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by guest critic Maeve Campbell

On entering a seven-hour long production one might ask the following questions: will I understand the plot, will I be able to sit through it for the duration and will it be worth the plane journey, holiday costs and copious amounts of pilsner consumed over the weekend? The answers are no and no but, to the last question, a resounding yes. Directed by the controversial Frank Castorf, famously ousted as leader of the Volksbühne theatre after nearly fifteen years of service, this production is his swan-song. Castorf’s previous work has been described as ‘deliberately incoherent’, and this Faust does not disappoint.

Yet, the first half of the play, three and half hours straight through, leaves one feeling both exhilarated and exhausted. The staging is mind-blowingly intricate. We begin looking at a huge, devilish mouth as the face of a building that turns on four sides, revealing room after room that are insanely detailed in construction. Often the audience aren’t invited into these rooms, they are inside the walled structure, but camera crews document action that is live-fed to a giant screen above the set. This limits the theatrical viewpoint, meaning we only ever see what Castorf wants us to. This structure transcends time – sometimes we are in a brothel during the Franco-Algerian war, or an early twentieth-century Paris metro platform and train carriage, or a bawdy gothic tavern, or even a Supreme brand clothing boutique. All this action is peppered with an impressively eclectic soundtrack, ranging from Wagner to Gershwin to Donovan.

The actors impress not only with their stamina, but their ability to sell such a strange world. Valery Tscheplanowa’s award-winning performance as Gretchen and Helena stands out, as she matches the camp energy of the ensemble with moments of moving emotional depth. But the whole ensemble is incredible, never wavering in their commitment to this mammoth feat of theatre. They even give great line fluff.

However, the experience of watching such a show is not totally adrenaline-boosting. The production relies on its audience having immense European cultural literacy. Not only would reading Goethe and Schiller be useful, but also Zola, Byron, Fanon. An in-depth knowledge of post-colonial and Marxist critical theory in relation to French history won’t hurt either. The plot, if there even is one, fluidly observes time and place to say the least. And the English subtitles are so awkwardly placed on the walls of the theatre’s auditorium, they leave one feeling isolated from jokes that apparently fill the piece. The predominantly German-speaking audience cackle heartily at some truly baffling moments.

The main quandary though, are the racial and sexual politics of the show – which at times are troubling. Rape and assault are presented humorously, including during a scene set on the subway carriage. This is the first introduction of black actors onstage. The several titters drawn from the audience during this scene is shocking to hear. One could argue that in presenting violence, and negating black and female bodies without comment, Castorf is engaging smartly with history and the problems within the source material. Yet this isn’t enough; when the director chooses to be so subversive in adhering to a narrative form and not engaging in the present-day ethical implications of having
different bodies on a stage, it’s irresponsible.

These problems contribute to the amazing, terrifying and puzzling experience of watching Castorf’s Faust. One leaves the first half with a sore head and a racing pulse. Watching a chunk of the second half projected, without subtitles, on the wall of the Berliner Festspiele bar is marginally restorative. Pacts with the devil, or the Barbican programming team, should certainly be made in exchange for a London showing.

Faust runs through 8 May.

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