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A CurtainUp London London Review

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live and then thou must be damned perpetually.
---- Mephistoles
Fernanda Prata as Martha and Geir Hytten as the Good Angel
(Photo: Stephen Dobbie)
21 Wapping Lane is a disused warehouse in London’s East End. Under the inspired influence of theatre company Punchdrunk this 1950s warehouse has become the most excitingly original theatre event in London this year. Part installation and part choreographed drama, a cast of over 20, recreates Goethe’s masterwork on five floors. It’s the scale which amazes and the detail of 1950s small town America which draws you in. One floor looked like a street scene made up of Edward Hopper painted shops, bar and café. A lone barman (James Sobol Kelly), black tie, white shirt, waistcoat, penetrating gaze, draws you into his era in an imaginative leap and, if you are favoured, pours you a shot of bourbon and chants a rhyme about Old Tom whilst holding your hands flat on the bar. The drugstore has a pretty girl chewing bubblegum and blowing those pink iridescent bubbles in a pattern which feels like a repeating loop. But back to my beginning.

Everyone’s beginning for this performance is different, an individual and intensely creative experience. We were taken through the real bar and told it would be open until midnight. A girl with an American accent and fifties clothes gave us masks to wear. These full face white masks inspired by the Venetian carnival are designed to stop the audience interacting with each other. We all had curious proboscides, only our eyes were left for expression. We were then taken in an elevator and at the first stop, one brave volunteer was asked to walk out into the darkness alone. The elevator door was clanged shut, we moved on up and on to the next floor, all but one were asked to alight. Feeling independent, I asked to be the last one and another woman had the same thought, but the liftman allowed us both to stay. Through the darkness we saw a small room where a man was getting ready to go out. Shirt, tie, jacket. He walked as if to pass me and stopped to sniff my neck. Maybe he could smell my fear. Anyway I recoiled and then snarled like an angry cat in defence. Fortunately he passed on but I knew this man was sinister. On the other side of the gauze wall was a whole forest of pine trees and we saw a soldier looking at the broken steeple of what might have been the church steeple.

I worked my way back to the stairs and down to the floor where the whole Edward Hopper street was recreated in fabulous detail. A cheap small town hotel, its twin bedded rooms with candlewick bedspreads, red neon signs shining in the dark, and to the drugstore where there was a fight between young agile men. Huge balletic leaps, as they flew at each other in a struggle, they moved around the floor and up over the tables and the banquettes. It was spectacular and we were close enough to potentially get hurt! There were also quiet moments when a girl, Gretchen (Sarah Labigne) went back to her room to change into an angel’s outfit with wings and we stood staring, conscious of being voyeurs. We stood there on another floor as Faust (Edward Halsted), as an old man, muttered and rummaged through miscroscope slides and ingredients and books in his apothecary’s shop, on the black floor, a white pentangle surrounded by written incantations.

High above, I found a floor of cornfields and stone Madonnas with candles burning. There was a maze where again I came across old Faust trying to find his way out through the narrow passageways. Down past a caged celebration of Walpurgis Night where men were throwing Gretchen above them in a frenzy of sexuality and power, passionately choreographed. I had walked past fields and a huge windmill straight out of Dorothy’s Kansas, past a lone Evangelist (Sam Booth) speaking from the Good Book. Finally to where Gretchen was imprisoned and where the young Faust (Rob McNeill) is taken, stripped naked and subjected to repeated and violent body slamming from Mephistoles (Vinicius Salles) in a sadistic humiliation.

The production is moving away from speech and text. The audience need to realise that they are exchanging chronology and sequence for the freedom to walk around at will, maybe following one character for a while or following the action, or as I often did, avoiding the crowds to wander off and explore on one’s own. What you see is a collage of memory pictures which you can later fit into Goethe’s plot if you came to Punchdrunk’s Faust, like me, more familiar with Marlowe than Goethe. Many of the cast have a background in dance. They are wonderfully athletic but Punchdrunk’s performance engaged my emotions more than any other physical spectacular like De La Guarda. Artistic Director Felix Barrett’s conception conveys both the euphoria and despair of Heaven and Hell. The malevolency of Vinicius Salles’ coldly evil Mephistoles casts a shadow still. Wonderful music complements the action. The drawback of Faust is in its popularity, the big scenes get crowded as the evening progresses and it can be hard to see, so I preferred to wander off and personally infuse the detail of the empty rooms. I ended the evening in the bar where a live band and a brilliant ambience added to a very special night’s entertainment.

The next Punchdrunk project is at Battersea Arts Centre, using all of the Old Town Hall offices on the theme of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, The Red Death. Book early! Like this Faust it will sell out. September 2007.

Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Directed and choreographed by Felix Barrett

Starring: Vinicius Salles, Dan Canham, Sarah Labigne, Edward Halstead
With: Ben Duke, Geir Hytten, Fernanda Prata, Adam Burton, Paul O’Shea, Jane Leaney, Conor Doyle, Su Elliott, Robert McNeill, Sam Booth, Kate Hargreaves, Hector Harkness, Rebecca Botten, James Sobol Kelly, Amy Mathieson, Katy Balfour, Jessica Parfitt, Dylan Elmore, River Carmalt, Raquel Meseguer, Tim Morris, Robert Wilson
Design Associate: Robin Harvey
Costume Design: Tina Bicât
Assistant Choreographer: Maxine Doyle
Lighting: Matt Prentice
Sound: Stephen Dobbie
Music: Matthew Herbert
Running time: Two cycles of 90 minutes and 180 minutes with no interval
Sponsored by Ballymore
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 (National Theatre)
Booking to 31 March 2007 but sold out
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd March 2007 performance at 21 Wapping Lane, London E1 (Tube: Wapping/Shadwell)
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