Friday, 22 October 2010


20/10/10, Young Vic

Teenage boy on the way out: "That was so athletic." Teenage girl: "This may sound really gay, but the health and safety on that must be really intense."

The latest from the (highly athletic) Icelandic company Vesturport, this time directed rather than starring Gisli Orn Gardarsson. A version of the Faust epic -- in English rhyme, no less -- as performed by the inmates of an old people's home including an ancient, broke actor who played every tragic part in his time except Faust and whose attempted (successful?) suicide sparks the arrival of Mephisto and his henchpeople Asmodeus and Lilith and the telling of the familiar story. The love interest is Greta, the virginal nurse with an overly-protective elder brother, who also works at the care home; in the old actor's dream of Faust she turns up not in her white nurse's uniform but a white basque and tutu-like skirt, and v sexy she is too.

The whole thing played out on a wide stage with a mesh back wall and three windows, allowing us to see through to the snow falling outside, and with three traps, from one of which Lilith first appears bursting through the floor and flying on a rope which deposits her on a black net stretched right across the auditorium ten feet above the stage, on which actors and acrobats disport themselves from time to time (at the end of the interval the audience returns to find a silent actor in a dressing gown performing rather laboured silent film-style stunts with a runaway folding wheelchair). Actors fall backwards onto the net from the flies in sudden flashes of light. They swing from a trapeze above it. They somersault over the edge and hang by their hands to drop onto the stage. In the love scene the happy couple spin above the stage on ropes twined round their wrists.

Vesturport are really good at integrating the physical into serious drama, but less good at the straight acting. The first scene in the old people's home drags. Not helped by the fact that English is not the cast's first language: they speak it well, but often with intonation just that little bit "off".

There are a number of meta-theatrical gags. The silent oldster is warned to "mind the pit" as he walks towards one of the on-stage traps: he steps into it and literally bounces out. At the end of the first half there's a gag about forgetting one's lines and having to be prompted by one of the care home residents with the text... who then comes on with the same text a minute or two later and reads out (in rhyme) the announcement of the interval.

There are some nice gags generally, indeed: the care home residents keep fit by doing synchronised dancing in their wheelchairs to a George Michael track.

The general aesthetic is grungy. Mephisto wears a string vest with blood stains, and a frock coat and white leggings.

It all ends in tears. There's a Walpurgisnacht orgy (with only one witch, but then the cast is only nine strong) during which Greta loses her inhibitions to the extent of removing the basque, downstage centre, before matters are broken up by her furious brother who is put to sleep with a potion only to awake once more to break up the subsequent aerial love ballet. By this stage, in a move typical of the rough and ready approach, the older actor playing Faust has switched bodies with the younger actor playing Asmodeus, to make him both a more convincing suitor for Greta and a more capable acrobat.

In all this the moral issues raised by the Faust legend, or this version of it, get a little lost. Mephisto is infuriated by Faust's insistence for much of the time that however much he lusts after Greta he intends her to remain pure.

The music was by Nick Cave.

Ian McKellen was in the audience.

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