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A CurtainUp London London Review

Humans always want what they cannot have. — Mefisto
Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as Lilith (Photo: Grimur Bjarnson)
The Icelandic theatre company Vesturport return to the Young Vic where their Romeo and Juliet was such a hit in 2004 and now tackle another work from the great theatrical canon, Goethe’s Faust. With their originality and exciting staging, under the direction of Gísli Örn Garðarsson they have set their Faust in a home for old people at Christmastime.

Walking frames and wheelchairs clutter the stage along with the desiccated bodies of those past caring and past being cared for. But one of their number, Johan (Þorsteinn or Thorsteinn Gunnarsson) does care. A retired actor, he can still entertain with a lifetime of remembered performances and brilliant delivery. His speeches may nowadays be compilations from those works so familiar to us but he can compete with the other laid on entertainment, synchronised wheelchair dancing! His friend is Eva (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) an admirer and egger-on of the old actor’s ability to break the monotony of life in this residential institution. Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir plays Greta the nurse who cares for them.

As Johan starts to play all the parts in Faust, although he confesses it is a role he has never before undertaken, life imitates art. As Johan mentions Faust in the background we hear horses whinny and stamp their hooves in mock terror. Hilmir Snær Guðnason disguised as an old man jumps from his comatose position in a wheelchair, rips off his rubber mask and reveals himself as Mefisto the Devil, his body jerking and shuddering in a chilling transformation, here to seduce the good man Faust or Johan. The object of Faust’s desires is the lovely Greta and Johan is metamorphosed into a young handsome version of himself (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson).

Mefisto introduces us to his fellow demons, Asmodeus (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) and Lilith (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) remarkable for their appearance high above in a net suspended above the stage. Lilith flies from a rope as if she is a doll and then moves and we realise she is alive not a dummy. It is a hypnotic theatrical experience that made me gasp with amazement. It seems too simplistic to describe this incredible movement and imaginative direction as circus because it is so much more than that – an inherent theatricality at its height, when to Nick Cave’s specially composed song "I’m Evil", Mefisto sings and Greta and Faust have gloriously choreographed sex.

As we have come to expect from Vesturport, the movement is exceptional. A grid to the rear, like picture frames lit with frames of fairy lights, allows Mefisto to climb and crouch above the action watching. Asmodeus and Lilith can hang upside down from the net above the stage and others can wade across it. It gives so many playing levels and ideas. I liked too Mefisto’s shocking assassination technique, a quick twist this way and that to the neck, a loud crack and the head of the victim hangs limp and life is over. Makeup is dramatic with blackened eyes in white faces and the costumes are imaginative and fun in the realm of fantasy. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music is thrilling but we also get a fair bit of Wham’s "Last Christmas" as a jokey, sentimental rif.

I haven’t enjoyed a Faust as much since punchdrunk’s installation of choreography in an old warehouse in Wapping. I wonder what Vesturport have in the planning for us next? This is cutting edge theatre and not to be missed.

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Written by Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, Gísli Örn Garðarsson, Carl Grose, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Víkingur Kristjánsson
Directed by Gísli Örn Garðarsson

Starring: Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Hanna María Karlsdóttir, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir
With: Rúnar Freyr Gíslason, Víkingur Kristjánsson, Svava Björg Örlygsdóttir, Jóhannes Níels Sigurðsson
Set Design: Axel Jóhannesson
Costumes: Filippia Elísdóttir
Lighting: Þórður Orri Pétursson
Sound: Thorbjorn Knudsen and Frank Hall
Makeup: Sigridur Rðsa Bjarnadóttir
Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 30th October 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st October 2010 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8LZ (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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