THEATRE / Let there be light: Paul Taylor on Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights

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The Independent Culture
IN Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (Gertrude Stein's droll modernist descantings on Faustian themes), the 'Marguerite' character rejoices in two names - Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel - and is played by a trio of actresses, all wearing slinky dark-blue slips. At one point, this triple-bodied phenomenon gets stuck on the sort of minimalist verbal loop (rhythmic repetition of minutely varied phrases) that is the stubborn signature music of the Gertrude Steinway.

'And what is it?' 'Does it hurt?' 'No, not really' they intone in robotic relay. Watching the Berlin Hebbel-Theater's English-language version at the Royal Lyceum for the Edinburgh Festival, you find yourself applying much the same question-and-answer sequence to the show. What is it? Er, pass. Well, does it hurt? No, not really, give or take the odd aching longueur. In fact, Robert Wilson's arresting production is a model of cool, humorous bizarrerie. Stratifying the acting space so that we seem to be watching several flat layers of independent action that have been superimposed on each other, the playfully abstract staging offers, in its visuals, a kind of equivalent for the dry-witted, depthless feel of Stein's prose.

Meanwhile, Hans Peter Kuhn's musical score - post-Satie-meets-Laurie-Anderson - captures, in its subdued oompah-pah rhythms and curdled distant-fairground atmosphere, the distinctively modernist sense of the human subject as mechanised and soulless. In fact, Stein's Faustus (who is also played in triplicate) openly doubts that he ever had a soul to sell. And he's unimpressed by what he has gained in his trade-off with the devil: the capacity to invent the electric light. Artificial illumination is overrated, he feels, a sentiment shared by his dog (impersonated by a woman in a suit and hair bunches) who can no longer see, and hence can't bay at the moon.

Far from wanting to evade hell, this Faustus is hell-bent on going there, a freedom he fears he may have forfeited in the diabolic pact. The condition Mephisto lays down is that he must commit murder first. The killing duly accomplished, Faustus is then offered a supernatural rejuvenation course so that he can seduce Marguerie Ida/ Helena Annabel into going to hell with him. But Stein has her reject his advances, thus exacerbating the loneliness in which he enters hell.

A lot of this is very bafflingly conveyed. One feature that is not shrouded in murk, though, is the paradoxical importance to the production of Heinrich Brunke's beautiful lighting effects. Here is a show that would be more kyboshed than most by a power cut. This is apparent from the striking opening image - a man, in black silhouette against a brilliant white background sticks a large pair of compasses into the virgin vacancy and describes arcs that scrunch through the air with the creaking chomp of giant termites. Throughout, the figures seem to exist for the sake of peopling the lit landscapes rather than the reverse. Fluorescent bars ascend and descend like elegant, comic wipers.

As the moment of entering hell approaches, a brilliant square of light eerily shrinks in the blackness and is then flung forward as a little square-shaped parody of a light-bulb over Faustus's head. In this respect, at least, the production leaves no one but its hero in the dark.

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