Silviu Purcărete’s 'Faust'
This article is from 2009.
An orgiastic carnival of sex and death rages through Silviu Purcărete’s Faust. Bearing witness deep in vampire country, Neil Cooper is awestruck at this gem of illusion
Silviu Purcărete doesn’t do things by halves. Last time the veteran Romanian director was in Edinburgh was almost two decades ago with a version of Ubu Rex. The production was a massive take on Alfred Jarry’s absurdist classic. Since then he brought a similarly epic version of Aeschylus’ Danaides to Glasgow’s Tramway, while other Purcărete productions seen in the UK include The Decameron, Phaedra, The Tempest and the Oresteia.
To mark the Paris-based Purcărete’s return, his loose-knit but monumental version of Goethe’s Faust, produced by the National Theatre ‘Radu Stanca’ in Sibiu and featuring more than 100 actors, a live band and a succession of stage spectacles that dazzle the audience as much as they do Faust himself, is even bigger. So big, in fact, that the only venue large enough to accommodate what is effectively Purcărete’s vision of a corrupted spirit is the Lowland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre in Ingliston. The necessity for such a location became clear when Faust played on home turf as a major draw in the Sibiu Theatre Festival in June.
One of three Purcărete productions in Sibiu – following The Mountain Giants and a swimming-pool set interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis featuring a cast of 28 – Faust first requires the audience to be bussed out to a dilapidated factory where the performance will take place. It’s not the same factory the piece was created for in 2007 before touring to Frankfurt, but it has the same air of industrial decay. This normally empty space is brimful of life at 10pm, with Faust scheduled to begin its slow-burning ravishing of the senses that would explode into the witching hour.
When a dapperly-dressed MC walks through the audience and rips down a pure-white stage curtain, the oversize newspaper-strewn schoolroom which a pasty-faced Faust occupies is startling enough. The parade of demented-looking pupils who study laptops but look like escapees from Bedlam give a clear idea of how the pursuit of education can be warped from the off. Faust himself, as played with dome-headed control by Ilie Gheorghe, is a tormented soul, struggling for pleasure of the senses and the wisdom of experience beyond the arid epistles of book-learnt fact. The pure ideals he sees in Gretchen, the girl child here represented by half a dozen young actresses dressed in white, suggests a more dangerous form of knowledge.
Even with so many actors pivoting around the tug of love between Faust and Mephistopheles, at first glance this seems like a spectacle that could have been housed in a more regular theatre space. But nothing is as it seems. A real life dog – black as hell itself – walks into the wardrobe on the far side of the stage. This isn’t some heavenly Narnia, though, watched over by benevolently regal four-legged deities, as the malevolent sprite, Ofelia Popii’s sexually ambiguous Mephistopheles, makes more than clear when she crawls out of the wardrobe, a beast seemingly transformed.
The series of deliciously invasive sleights-of-hand that follow from both parties offers eye-poppingly enticing hints of the worlds beyond. Outside the schoolroom windows, suns set, fires rage and bodies press their noses up against the glass. And when midway through the show the back-wall opens out and the stage floor slides away, that is when the audience becomes part of one of the most staggeringly realised theatrical carnivals of sex and death ever witnessed.
But when you look a little closer at this apocalyptic orgy, beyond the rutting pigs and the rhinoceros, beyond the flying angels and writhing bodies, you’ll see it’s all artifice. A bunch of phoney tricks have been lifted straight from Mephistopheles’ conjuring book for the ancient rite that is the Feast of the Witches, the pageant which may incorporate new technology into its routine, but remains exactly that, a routine. This is Purcărete playing with his own sense of theatricality. Nothing is hidden from view, not the live band aloft a steel platform, not the harnesses that allow some of the performers to hang down above us, and not the banks of TV monitors flashing images of Mephistopheles. Like Faust, who stands enraptured on the lip of a proscenium arch that suggests the workings of a stage behind it, the audience goes willingly, buying into every illusion.
Watching this tale of a parasitic entity attempting to suck the life-force from a mere mortal in Sibiu, one becomes acutely aware of being in the part of Romania that was formerly Transylvania. As the spiritual home of vampires, Dracula and the undead who walk with Bram Stoker’s much mythologised Count who, one way or another has become immortal, Transylvania is a home from home for Faust. In the centre of Sibiu, however, where diabolic wolf-like dogs, unleashed and seemingly unowned, roam towered streets, there’s little in the way of vampire tat to bleed trash-loving tourists dry. The only physical evidence of such a heritage is a moulded comic likeness fixed outside the money exchange beside the Bank of Transylvania, which it guards day and night except Saturday afternoons when the entire city shuts up shop.
The next day, Purcărete sits at a sheltered trestle table in a courtyard behind the theatre which at night becomes the Festival club. Some of the actors from the ensemble sit at other tables, abstractedly going over scripts set in front of them. Popii, who looks so fierce and so desperate as Mephistopheles, sits alone, relaxing. These are the players who the night before put flesh on Purcărete’s mighty vision, an instinctive but well-drilled affair which he half explains with a casual matter-of-factness that belies its profundity and scale.
‘It’s one of the most obsessive myths of European literature,’ Purcărete says. ‘But you can’t do all of it, because it would take many hours. My adaptation is based 90% on the first part of the poem, which is more dramatic. The second part was written by Goethe when he was delirious, and isn’t dramatic. So, my version tells an intimate story of Faust.’
Of Faust’s scenes with Gretchen, particularly where one of the actresses playing her sits on Gheorghe’s knee, Purcărete points out that the image stays true to Goethe’s original, which indicated that Gretchen was 14 years old at a time when it was socially acceptable for a teenage girl to be married. Beyond such ambiguous teenage dreams, Purcărete’s production was, it seems, a matter of life and death from the very start. ‘I was originally going to do it with two older actors,’ he says flatly, ‘but one died. We had to think again, and I’ve worked before with both the actors doing it now. Having a woman play Mephistopheles wasn’t deliberate, but it somehow helps the sense of seduction. At the end, his salvation is death, while Mephistopheles falls in love and is infected by love, but is unable to love.’
From looking at Ofelia Popii’s porcelain-skinned demeanour, you’d never guess what she’d put herself through over the last few days. Not only was she (and 27 colleagues) soaked to the skin in Metamorphosis, performing in such inclement open-air conditions that a final performance was called off after one actor went down with hypothermia, but in Faust, Popii, alongside Ilie Gheorghe in the title role, is onstage for the play’s full two hours.
As the pair bear witness to a cavalcade of depraved temptation that makes The Wicker Man look like The Tweenies, Popii’s all-angles Mephistopheles begins to look increasingly human. ‘I never dreamed I would get to play this role,’ says the gamine 30-year-old. ‘The most interesting part for me is the way Mephistopheles wishes to understand the divine part of things. He has this illusion of love. He thinks he feels it, but for him it is all about the body.’
Faust is the fifth time Popii has worked with Purcărete, most recently in a production of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. The way Popii talks makes the piece sound like a love story between Faust and Mephistopheles, albeit one doomed never to be consummated, no matter what big set-pieces Mephistopheles conjures up to woo his/her chosen one over to the dark side.
‘He’s always looking for something he can never find,’ Popii observes. ‘He’s never relaxed, never calm. Mephistopheles isn’t human, because he doesn’t have feelings. For him it’s all fake. That vulnerable side of him comes from a sadness from long ago, and in the end that’s what stops him from being able to love.’ On the streets of Sibiu, vampires may be lacking, but Purcărete’s Faust looks like a blood-curdlingly prescient tale that’s perfect for our times.
Faust, Lowland Hall, Ingliston, 0131 473 2000, 18–22 Aug, 7.30pm, £20.