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Review: FAUST/US (浮世/德) by Nine Years Theatre

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Lest the demons get to me.

Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early 1800s, there is a timelessness to the narrative and themes discussed in Faust that have led to it becoming an inspiration for countless other works of art, and its regard as one of the greatest works of German literature. To stage it in a new capacity then, is certainly a challenging task to undertake, given its illustrious history, and with FAUST/US, Nine Years Theatre’s new production of the classic, one needs no further evidence to prove that there are some legends that do indeed deserve to live forever.

In this new production, adapted and directed by Cherilyn Woo (the first play she is helming as a full fledged director) and translated into Mandarin by Neo Hai Bin, the titular Faust receives a gender swap, now a younger, female professor played by Mia Chee, as opposed to the more classical, wizened old man interpretation of the character. FAUST/US strikes a stark chord with audience members in its protagonist, almost certainly relatable to anyone who’s ever had a brush with depression; world-weary and on the verge of suicide, Faust expresses her regret at not living her life to the fullest, before she unwittingly invites a demon into her house. Introducing himself as Mephistopheles (Timothy Wan), she signs a contract to receive a lifetime’s worth of her heart’s desires, in exchange for her soul should she ever find nothing worth living for again, leading the odd couple on a journey of reflection, revolution, and revelation.

Over its 2 hour runtime, FAUST/US moves at a good pace, metamorphosing into different genres in each scene, from horror film to political commentary on censorship. This is in part, helped by the stellar creatives working on the design elements; Zai Tang’s almost three-dimensional incidental music is brilliant, creeping in from all sides as Faust summons nether spirits, while Petrina Dawn Tan’s multi-faceted set combined with Adrian Tan’s lighting always holds a surprise for audiences, be it empty space that transforms into a room simply through light, or stairways in the background allowing actors to ascend and descend the various levels as they please. This is particularly effective as Mephistopheles and God speak in the play’s opening scenes, their wager taking place one level above audiences’ eye level to represent the supernatural essence of these beings.

There is a constant sense of dark wonder we experience as we watch Faust journey from place to place in search of happiness and the meaning of life, encountering an elixir of youth that doesn’t work quite as she expects it to, a writer she has a brief, fleeting romance with (Neo Hai Bin), an angry mob, and even God himself (Hang Qian Chou). As she pursues her own desires, while not necessarily antagonistic in nature, the results often have far reaching consequences she never imagined, bringing about tragedy and loss that breaks her spirit piece by brittle piece. By the play’s denouement, Faust’s personal traumas have escalated into seemingly apocalyptic proportions as her actions unwittingly cause the death of writers, the loss of her study, and the insanity of her lover. God and Mephistopheles themselves make an appearance before her very eyes to give her a Hobson’s choice – to sacrifice her soul or to give it to a God who allows her to suffer as he watches passively. As much as it seems she has everything at her disposal, a seemingly ‘clear’ choice, the truth is, all of it is merely an illusion, and she returns to the state she was in before, only this time, resigned to her eventual doom with her soul in Mephistopheles’ hands.

Throughout the play, Mia Chee maintains a delicate balance between vulnerability and strength in her performance, her Faust one we desperately want to find happiness and meaning, even as she continually finds herself lost over and over again, uncertain of what she truly wants. Meanwhile, Timothy Wan is perfectly cast as Mephistopheles, smooth-talking, devilishly charming and equipped with an arrogant confidence and laidback attitude, his bad boy look completed with costume designer Loo An Ni’s choice of black leather coat, a single silver ear stud and finger decked in silver rings. There is no doubt that this is a man who can and will convince anyone to sign their soul to him. As for the other cast members, Neo Hai Bin plays Faust’s lover Gert well, bringing him from innocent young ingenue to the verge of madness as he loses all hope, while Hang Qian Chou manages both the grandiose nature of God and the tragedy of Faust’s confidante Wagner, ever optimistic, ever loyal to Faust.

Ultimately, amidst the absurdity that life has tossed at Faust, and the pain and suffering she’s been through, Faust miraculously remains alive by the play’s end. While she continues to be haunted by the fear that the darkness in her heart will creep back eventually, this is countered by a renewed vigour to dive headfirst back into her work and use her brilliance for good, living a life with greater meaning than before, dictated by her and not the demons in her head. FAUST/US is promising work from director Cherilyn Woo, and a darkly thought-provoking start to Nine Years Theatre’s 2019 season, reminding audiences that while the shadow of doubt and depression may surround us, far too often, we forget that a light of hope instead lies within us all, and a deal with the devil is the last thing we need to carry on living. 

Performance attended 21/2/19

FAUST/US plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from 21st to 24th March 2019. Tickets are SOLD OUT.

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