The latest production from Chester's Storyhouse Theatre breathes life into the Western folklore of Faust in a relevant, thought-provoking retelling with a female protagonist at its centre. 

'Faustus: That Damned Woman' is the latest Storyhouse Originals production to take to the Hunter Street venue from 3-18 February 2023.

The production is written by Chris Bush and co-produced with the Storyhouse's residence Fallen Angels Dance Company, a company that explores and creates productions with people in recovery from addiction in order to share messages of transformation and hope. 

With FAUSTUS: That Damned Woman, while the heart of the story remains, Bush has placed a female protagonist – Joanna Faustus – centre stage and has her making her demonic pact to try and break free of societal oppression, with the play exploring what women must sacrifice to seize control of their own destiny.

The Leader:

The shows director Francesca Goodridge was first introduced to the Faustus myth at school. But she admits it didn’t really chime with her until she read playwright Chris Bush’s unique interpretation.

“I’m led to female stories,” she explains. “And I’ve really tried not to dig too deep into the (Christopher) Marlowe original, because I just think what Chris has done with this production is so new and reimagined and exciting.”

In Marlowe’s late-16th Century version of the cautionary tale, the titular character sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and power, but then squanders those gifts playing pranks and indulging in the magical arts.

Francesca continued: “It’s not just that Chris has put a woman in Faust’s place, What it does really is interrogate a woman’s place in the world today and how much has really changed.

“And it asks us why, if a man in the original is striving and ambitious, we see that as admirable, but when a woman is striving to be amazing, she’s damned – it’s not right, she’s a witch, she shouldn’t be allowed to have that power or that knowledge.

“So, I guess it provokes questions of a woman’s place in society, how we treat women, and today as well, not just through history."

The play follows the title character as she travels through history, however many elements of misogyny and inequality remain. 

The story line of the play is easy to follow with historical references subtly weaved throughout. 

The strength of the performance lies in the physicality of the performers who take on collective movement as easily as they embody the wit and emotion of characters. 

Olivia Sweeney, who plays the title character Joanna, gives a relentless performance taking every facet of Joanna's complex character in her stride resulting in a breath-taking performance. 

The Leader: Olivia Sweeney plays Johanna FaustusOlivia Sweeney plays Johanna Faustus (Image: Storyhouse Chester)

Several members of the ensemble take turns to become the character of Mephistopheles, which can often be grating to an audience forced to glare at the acting inconsistencies. 

However, I felt this was a successful decision by director Francesca, as it added an ethereal, otherworldly appearance to the character leaving me wonder - is there a devil in everyone? 

The ensemble cast, of Bridgette Amofah, Daniel Hawksford, Yali Topol Magalith, Miriam O'Brien, Emma Pallant, Matthew Romain and Dzey X Smith, didn't miss a beat each offering outstanding performances. 

A scene I felt was particularly powerful was the ensemble acting as Joanna's inner consciousness reciting her sins and weaknesses. 

The Leader:

This scene, as well as many others throughout the play, held up a shining mirror to oneself forcing us to look inwards at the sins we may be unwittingly fulfilling. 

The set design combined natural elements of water and fire effectively centred around an impressive working well which took centre stage. 

When researching the look and feel Francesca wants to bring to a production, she says she works with visual imagery more than words, and for Faustus she has explored ideas of physical theatre and contemporary dance, along with body art.

The Leader:

Francesca continued: "In my mind, you’re watching Olivia play Faustus. But if you’d come an hour before, you might have seen another of the ensemble playing Faustus,”

Francesca explains. “They’re like women who tried but have been persecuted. So, they’re there, existing on stage, willing the next woman to do it, which is the actress playing Faustus that night.

“At the end of the show when Faustus is taken, it’s ‘let’s start again. Who’s the next woman who’s going to come out? It’s OK, we might fail, but there will always be another brilliant woman who is going to have a go. And that’s what we’ve got to cling on to’.”

Faustus: That Damned Woman is as hauntingly sombre as it is beautiful and witty and brings a modern twist to this renowned fable.