Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture












 Scream: March    2010 







some considerations in the development of Ich Bin Faust


The legend of Faust can be linked to John Fust, a business partner of Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. Fust's descendents had records of his name changed to Faust. It is possible any connection with devils was quite simply related to the printing process itself. Use of black ink and red ink meant people working at the press were likely to have stains on their body giving them a "devil" appearance. Selling the first bibles printed by Gutenberg was actually a hazardous business which John Fust discovered when imprisoned for being in league with the devil in the preparation of the printed books ... the printing process not being understood by some of the buyers! 


There certainly were hazards for Kit (Christopher) Marlowe. He was also an activist and was accused of atheism when playwright Thomas Kyd was found with one of his essays. After being tortured, Kyd admitted that Marlowe was the author. Within weeks of being brought before the Privy Council on charges relating to what was written, Marlowe was assassinated ... supposedly in a brawl over money. Marlowe challenged predominant ways of thinking at the time and, like Kyd and  Shakespeare, had to be fearless in approaching his art and craft. If we think that time and distance and changes in world views are enough to remove the need for a fearless approach today, then we need to think again.

Current attacks on scientists who write about climate change, as evidenced in the articles by Clive Hamilton for the ABC, show that scientific method is under severe attack. Anti-intellectualism and the willingness to circumvent scientific evidence are still the tools of choice for those seeking to protect some world view or belief system ... especially if profits are involved.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a member of the Dutch parliament when she was making a film with Theo van Goph on Islamic extremism in Holland when Van Goph was murdered in a public street. A note was attached to his body and a large knife was then plunged into his chest. The note described why Ali would be killed next and all the reasons why she would descend into hell. Among her many crimes was her public campaign against female genital mutilation that was being practiced in Holland. She herself was a refugee from Somalia where she came to oppose many of the cultural practices as applied to women. She describes in her book The Caged Virgin how her activism became a target not only for enemies but also from erstwhile allies. To see intellectuals attacking her and neglecting the source of her arguments about the rights of women suggest how vulnerable anyone is who speaks out and broaches subjects outside the agendas of vested interests.

Virtually any journalist knows about receiving abusive attacks for much of what they write. Death threats are not uncommon. Once a person's perception of the world is put up for public consumption and inspection, one is emotionally, intellectually and sometimes physically open to attack.

Social media are becoming the weapon of choice for bullies and some truly evil antagonists who attack people in dire distress as exemplified by the posting of porn and offensive language on a tribute site posted on Facebook after the killing of a child in the Brisbane suburb of Shorncliffe. Something as human and simple as providing a public expression of grief on a social media site provided the means for abuse and attack.

In 1968, the play Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo was attacked by outraged citizens because of its obscene language. Today it is a text for study in schools. What might outrage people today, might simply be a quaint curiosity for study at some future time. However, in the choice of theatrical presentation, it is tempting to choose past controversial works that have seemingly lost their subversive aspects over the passing of time. The Producer can claim to be attempting lofty subjects without ever having to risk the same reaction that the original productions evoked. Interestingly enough this was not the case with a recent remounting of Buzo's famous play. Norm and Ahmed was recently paired with a new play, Shafana and Aunt Sarrina, by Alana Valentine and directed by Aarne Neeme. The latter concerned a young Muslim woman in Australia wanting to adopt the veil and being challenged by her aunt with a very different point of view. From all accounts the pairing of these two plays distilled a focus on cultural issues that fit the post September 11 world.

Even the act of participating in a theatrical work can be an act of courage. Some of the Ich Bin Faust cast  had the opportunity last year to try out for their school's musical production. This certainly would have achieved considerable praise and kudos for these very talented and even musical students. It was a committed choice to spend the time on developing a work that had no guarantees of succeeding or even making it to performance. It has also meant living with this difficult material for a year long project. It began in April last year and will come to fruition in a season of performances in April 2010.

So why do it? Why risk the scorn of family members? Give up social occasions? Why give up other extra curricula activities to partake in such a journey needed to contemplate Faust in their own lives, the lives of others around them and in the wider communities?

As people are either being bombed from the sky or blown up by suicide bombers on the ground an apathetic public within our own society is enthralled by the "bread and circuses" of cultural denial. Perhaps it is worth stopping to consider more objectively how our lives interlink with those of others.

Theatre is perhaps the best way to do this. More than what any book can offer or any film that is caught and fixed within time can reflect, the theatre is still the place where individuals and groups have to:

  • consider often complex human predicaments

  • gain some perspective on such predicaments

  • comment on or reflect such considered perspectives in a live construction in a given place and time

  • select aspects and make choices that shed some light on a particular way of seeing such predicaments

  • make stylistic choices that will assist in communicating commentaries and considerations

  • collaborate within a team to structure, prepare and perform

  • harness and/or develop the necessary skills to create and re-create a performance

  • be willing to present a public outcome with potential for negative reactions; in short face the judgement of a live audience.

No matter when the script was written (ie. whether from the distant past or contemporary or newly devised or even a scenario without written down text), it is necessary for each participant to find some connection in order to make it happen.  

The fact that young people afford the time to do this is a privilege our culture shouldn't take for granted or treat as some kind of trivial pursuit. 

Initially, the cast and production group went on a camp to Caloola Farm and was asked to:

  • consider the Faust myths and the texts of great writers

  • select sections of text that sparked a personal reaction

  • share any seemingly random thoughts within a small grouping

  • create scenes with texts but derived from seemingly random associations or personal dramaturgies

  • present at night after very intense working during the day.

The resultant working provided the spring board for students own developing of a expressionist style presentation some weeks later under the title of Ich Bin Faust.

The process certainly enabled the young actors to find physical shape, movements, rituals and sculptural relationships that expressed elements of their experience and observations of life. This early work revealed aspects of the actors' own dramaturgies; the personal tendencies in interpretation of complex and unfamiliar texts.

Except for one actor, all members of the team that began the project at Caloola Farm last year agreed to see the project developed into a full theatre production and to allow the script to be informed by their own early experiments.

The trust they have given me to write and direct the production is enormous. It weighs very heavily on the responsibility I have to meet the aspirations of the group and to challenge them to further their growth in artistic and conceptual understanding that began last year.

To create something fresh and in keeping with the Faust themes, I have chosen to focus on the idea of life mirroring art; thus enabling us to see the mythic in our own lives and in the lives of those close to us. The Faust / Margaret plot in the Goethe play provided a contemporary focus for the idea of personal responsibility and competing ethical demands. Rather than establishing Faust and Mephistopheles as two distinct characters, we are reminded of them at various points, but a number of characters can be seen to resemble both at times ... "I am Faust" but may also be "Mephistopheles".

At its core, the play is about life pathways and what shapes them. The need to engage with something more than what we immediately experience can be very powerful. The characters in this new incarnation of the play, display tendencies that drive them. In Eddie's case it is science. Eddie is the young man who played Faustus in his school production (now fictionalised). Life mirrors art for him in his search for knowledge. For Ali it is Islam. He withdrew from the production once he felt a need for a higher calling and he felt that theatre was a frivolous activity. For Kit, it is a social justice cause. We see early in the piece her disdain for the post-modern games of Jennifer. For Ms. Grey (Margaret's mother and a high level political figure) it is a case of keeping one's core beliefs while at times prudently bargaining with "appropriate devils" in order to survive. For Jennifer, it is the "game" of life and its apparent absurdity which is later challenged by the example and sacrifice of Kit while in The Sudan. Frieda's withdrawal from the norms of society and a general distrust of society leads her to a dark world of distortion and bizarre realities. Adriana ventures to the tip of the psychological precipice out of boredom. Ursula is at the cross roads and is uncertain of where to go. She plays the Counsellor and has to face and portray her character's death. Margaret is thrust by circumstances into personal dilemmas that shake her understanding of who she is and shape the direction of her life.

Paradoxically, the richness of the Marlowe and Goethe texts made it more compelling to explore the meta-textural ideas and frameworks underlining the plays. Simply reconstructing the originals would have restricted the degree of explorations of universal traits and observations contained within them. For similar reasons as to why Goethe found simple reconstructions of previous texts to be unsatisfactory and so had to spend sixty years on writing his masterpiece on Faust, we have sought to find the myths and metaphors as they are manifest in us now. By "us" I mean ourselves individually and as part of the milieu of diverse cultures, societies and belief systems.

Each character has a disposition towards a particular belief system. Some are plausible and some aren't. Marlowe's featuring of alchemy has been transposed into considerations of The Large Hadron Collider and particle physics. Jennifer poses a defining question for the production when she says:

"So what you are saying is we are just particles organized by some "god" field that converts energy into mass?"

The other night, I had a discussion with a musician friend and former production colleague who wondered aloud what my description of the work had to do with Faust. A good question! But the answer is clear. The risks the playwrights took in presenting works like Doctor Faustus were contained within the dramaturgies and world views of the times. As theatre practitioners today, we also need to look at the same stories and universals to see what the applications are for us ... for us as members of communities ... for us as members of humanity. We still bargain with devils. But the devils are not easily revealed. They are both around us and within us. The search for knowledge and need to feel powerful are still the same for us as they were for Faust. The manifestations are different but identifiable. The questioning of religion by science and art are just as evident today as in the sixteenth century. The constructions of our lives by systems of belief and even blind faith can be just as painful and destructive as in the past. Yet finding a real connection to a sense of spirituality and life purpose is also a part of the work and also very relevant for each of us in today's world.

In our play, the real lives of the characters are haunted by spectres of the characters they played while performing in their version of Doctor Faustus. It is as if some archetypes from the myth have escaped into the present world and even into the future where the play ends on the 21st. December 2012.

Joe Woodward
(Feb 2010)


The Harmonium Song by Konrad Lenz for Ich Bin Faust. Featuring Lucy Matthews as Mephisto.


HERE at Canberra Ticketing

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