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#172 The Damnation of Faust

May 9, 2011

Faust and Mephisto. Go for it, Faust, you Romantic hero, you! But watch out - Spamalot this ain't...

Overheard in the interval of Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO:

“So, do you like it so far?”
“Like it? It’s great! Fantastic! Just the whole – yes! Wow! OMFG and all that!”
“So what do you think it’s all about?”
“I haven’t got a clue.”
“Me neither.”

This is Terry Gilliam’s take on the Faust legend – the one in which the learned Faust does a deal with Mephistopheles, Satan’s sales rep, for his soul in return for ultimate knowledge and power. (If you want spoilers as to what happens at the end, the clue’s in the title.) So naturally, Mr Gilliam has chosen to make his version of the story – wait for it – a spiritual history of Germany in the first half of the 20th Century! (I know, right? That old chestnut.) This, and the distorted, opulent grotesquerie of the visuals, might have you leaving the ENO a little discombobulated. Like you’ve been nobbed in the face by an evil clown. But, uh… in a good way? Definitely in a good way.

So while Berlioz’s score informs us that Faust is being magically transported by Mephisto through various scenes of (rather tame) Romantic revelry, repose and ruin, what we actually see is the evolution of Nazism from beerhall thuggishness, to the Berlin Olympics, to the horrors of Auschwitz – all seen through Gilliam’s funhouse-mirror visual madness. It’s a sort of double vision. And it works.

This lunacy makes some kind of sense – only some kind – when you consider that Faust is a German legend which spawned an epic version by Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet. This is the text that inspired Hector Berlioz to come up with his meandering, hallucinatory opera, which he claimed couldn’t be performed adequately in his lifetime, due to the technical limitations of the 19th-century theatre. (Stay with me, here.)

Well, old Berlioz wouldn’t be complaining now. Gilliam’s staging is so over-the-top, it’d make Lady Gaga mumble something about steadying on, there. This Faust is a shadow-play, a series of endlessly changing set-pieces, and we’re left as exhausted – and almost as damned – as Faust by the end. This feels like pure, undiluted Gilliam, which is a pretty heady witch’s brew.

To Gilliam’s eye, everything is grotesque. So our everyman scholar-hero Faust is already a freak at the start: literally weighed down with his knowledge in the form of a monstrous backpack, angry red hair piled above his head, the picture of a geek obsessive. Did he wear little round glasses? Hard to see from the Gods, but since this is Gilliam, five’ll get you ten that he did. Mephisto is a rotund, affable, sauve and seriously saturnine master of ceremonies. Springing from behind doors and out of closets, he commands his charred and faceless legions of the damned to make Faust’s naive wishes come true, slowly sealing Faust’s fate as Germany falls into fascism. And yet it’s darkly hilarious, too, as you’d expect from an ex-Python. Gilliam – like Mephisto – just can’t seem to take the human race seriously. (This is the only demon you’ll see who, when singing about doves, feels the need to wink at the audience and do the ‘coo-coo’ beckoning gesture from Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars.)

If you’ve ever seen Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen or Time Bandits, you’ll recognise a lot here, including a fascination with Old Europe, the surreal idiocy of war, archetypes lavishly brought to life, and all manner of puppets, totems, skulls, supernatural beings, pompous generals, genially twisted and sinister sets, and a general carnivalesque air of terror and amusement in equal parts. Although the musical pace is as measured as you’d expect from 19th-century opera – apart from a mad chase in the last moments of the thing – the sets seem to come and go with startling speed. Faust is locked in his prison of reason, then he’s living it up with brawling drunks, then he’s caught up in the horrors of the Third Reich – and his damnation seems to express the fact that he’s no idle viewer. He’s complicit in this horrible, intoxicating vision, as damned as any of the German state who were ‘just following orders’.

The Nazis are presented as a hideous joke on mankind. A Hitler-a-like is a chubby man-child in lederhosen. When Faust gets a chance to meet his beloved, he doesn’t realised his presence has doomed her to jail – through Gilliam’s sorcery, this becomes her interment and death in Auschwitz.

Yeah, sometimes, Nazi imagery transferred to older works of art can seem a bit cheap: ho ho, let’s just make the easiest contemporary reference we can think of, and use a shorthand for modern evil. But this isn’t the case here, because Gilliam has the appropriate breadth of vision to show us impossible horrors. In his world, Nazism isn’t an aberation from saintly reasonableness – it’s an expression of the self-indulgent, vainglorious, naive and just plain dumb potential for cruelty we all have inside us. Being brainy or powerful won’t save you – they might just make it worse.

What about the music, you ask? Oh, that. The score is hardly sprightly – it seemed a bit treacly to us – but the singing is impeccably clear and effortless. There’s nothing here to match the monstrous visuals, at least until Faust is plunged into the pit in an infernally orgiastic climax.

So (deep breath), that’s Faust, then. If you care at all about Terry Gilliam’s art style and message, and you want to see this in its purest form, you owe it to yourself to bag a ticket. But don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get the imaginary smell of brimstone out of your hair.

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