By BRUCE DENNILL
The Dotted Line Showcase / Directed by Neka Da Costa / Redhill Theatre, Morningside, Johannesburg
Great stories work in any format because they deal in themes that remain current whenever and in whatever context they are highlighted. The story of Faust has been told for centuries, with plays by Marlowe and Goethe the most famous mainstream versions of the tale. The essential plot concerns a protagonist – a talented but successful scholar or businessman; in this case a designer of things technological – who craves excitement, success and power and is willing to do anything, including selling his soul, to do so. Cue the arrival of an agent from the Devil – Mephistopheles – to negotiate the deal and to ensure Faust holds up his end of the bargain.
Playwright Mark Kay has updated the scenario to bring a range of contemporary events and headlines into the the story, setting the action in a single room with the same props over a period of 27 years – the length of the contract agreed between the characters. Four specific periods – 1989, 2001, 2009 and 2016 – are touched on, identified by headline montages in which milestone events, from the September 11 attacks to Donald Trump’s “Let’s build a wall” statement are referenced.
As well as placing the action on a historical timeline, these clip collections suggest the work Mephistopheles is up to when she (the character is played with clipped control by Sarah Richard) is not in Faust’s (a confident, gruff Duane Behrens) office, making him sign documents. He signs a lot of paper during the course of the piece, but that’s partly down to his pushing back more than Satan’s envoy might reasonably expect.
Both actors, onstage throughout the piece, give good performances and have believable chemistry. Movement and physical interaction is kept simple because of the compact nature of the production, but clever bits of humour – there’s a consecrated strongbox gag that runs and runs – keep things lively throughout.
The production is aimed at the school market and beyond that, the festival circuit, and in terms of its simplicity and running time, it’s a great fit. As a showcase, this performance announced a piece with great potential, and with just a touch of polish – sharper reactions when one character is surprised by another; a little more clarity in terms of the audio mix – it should do well in the general theatre run as well.
There’s a tweak to the traditional ending of the legend as well, and it’s a satisfyingly edgy one.