Edinburgh Fringe 2011
A theatrical and technical tour-de-force expertly combining sound, animation and physicality hampered only by a deliberate lack of narrative, but no less stunning for that.
First impressions, as the song tells us, are lasting impressions. In his book “How I Escaped My Certain Fate”, the comedian Stewart Lee describes how the choice of music prior to his performance is deliberately selected in order to both set a mood and to tell him, via their reactions to his selection, something about the audience he will be facing that night. Quite what the audience cramped into the tiny room that is The Sweet’s City 2 studio made of the man on the floor swathed in white and covered in a tangle of reel-to-reel tape while the strains of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” filled the air is anybody’s guess. Whatever they were expecting, I very much doubt it was what followed in the next 50 minutes.
A dazzlingly inventive reinterpretation of Marlowe’s classic text sees the incredibly talented Calum Macaskill interact with screened animations, lip synch to synthesized voice-parts and hurl his body through countless contortions and mimetics as he portrays the emotional voyage of Faustus, ranging from cautious fear through wicked delight to cursed terror as the true price of his demonic pact draws ever closer to its reckoning. It is a performance of stunning discipline and precision as Macaskill hits cue after cue with apparent ease. The projected visuals draw from such diverse elements as silent cinema, stop-motion animator Jan Svankmajer and Japanese science fiction while the sound influences range from nerve shredding guitar to old-fashioned stream radio. If Macaskill’s skills as a performer weren’t enough, the fact that all the voices and animations were also provided by him make this a one-man show par excellence.
Only, it isn’t – a one-man show, that is. Director and collaborator (and probably chief technician) JD Henshaw has clearly taken a major part in the realisation of this project, apparently insisting from the outset that Macaskill use the Marlowe text and stripping it of all secondary parts, leaving the performer to concentrate on Faustus and his relationship with Mephistopheles (and by extension God and Lucifer). Instead of the social satire of Marlowe’s original, we are left with something darker and more personal, one man’s foray into his own heart of darkness.
Amidst the noise and invention, there is also tenderness and humour. The discarded tape becomes Helen of Troy, draped around Faustus in a loving cheek-to-cheek. Shadow puppet-style Popes and Cardinals are dispensed with by a flick of Faustus’ fingers in a moment of glee that fills the room as the audience gets to share in his sense of mischief. However it is the end, where in the process of ripping his shirt off Macaskill transforms his clothing into a pair of hell-bound wings, that will stay with me forever: so simple, so inspired, so tragically beautiful.
Persian rug makers used to include a flaw in each of their carpets so that they would not offend God with perfection. Whether Macaskill and Henshaw have taken out a similar insurance policy is unclear yet there is a flaw at play here. In stripping away much of the subordinate text, they have also dispensed with the story: mimesis has won out over narrative. As a result, the motives and personality of Faustus bedome unclear, almost impenetrable to those not familiar with Marlowe’s original. The admiration felt by the audience is also mixed with confusion as “Faust/Us” discards one of the central tenets of adaptation – to retell the story as though anew. However, this seems a small price to pay for a performance that only just falls short of the divine.