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Review Round-up: Faust Goes Circus at Young Vic

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Direct from Iceland, Vesturport's new circus-inspired retelling of Faust opened at the Young Vic on Friday (1 October, previews from 25 September) where it runs until 30 October 2010.

An adaptation of the Goethe's classic tale, following protagonist Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure, the story been re-worked infusing circus performance with the theatrical.

It’s co-written and directed by Gísli Örn Garðarsson, with music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who have all previously collaborated on Romeo and Juliet and Woyzeck (both also for the Young Vic, the latter during its Walkabout season at the Barbican) and Metamorphosis (Lyric Hammersmith). Among the Icelandic cast are Thorsteinn Gunnarsson as the old Faust, Unnur Osp Stefansdottir as Greta and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason as Mefisto.

Did this circus spectacle leave the critics doing tricks?

  • Honour Bayes on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “A continuous display of theatrical bangs and whistles..this explosive production is certainly in keeping with this dynamic company’s bombastic visual flair… for a story that is so well known, this production is as slippery as the promises of its devils… in the middle of all the glamour and grotesque winking and nudging it is hard to follow the journey of our anti-hero… It’s impressive, and boasts some compelling performances, but ultimately it’s also muddled and confusingly busy.”

  • Libby Purves in The Times (two stars) - “I was rather excited at the idea of the Icelanders of Vesturport theatre group retelling Faust in Circus style with a Nick Cave soundtrack… How better than to convey supernatural terror than through circus? What we have here is a postmodern panto-Faust, one could theorise around this but, alas it’s a lemon. Gunnarrson is an arresting performer with his snatches of Macbeth and Goethe in jokes such as ‘In the beginning was the word’ ‘which word?’—‘doesn’t say’. ..As for Nick Cave apart from satirical repetition of George Michael doing ‘Last Christmas’ on the nursing home radio there is only one song. And It doesn’t justify the big billing. Maybe circus just works best when it doesn’t mean anything, and Faust when it does.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “For those who like their classics played straight, this production of Faust will be anathema. Here, however, though bursting with bright ideas and a few genuinely exciting moments, Goethe’s epic seems not just diminished but cheapened… With the feeling that a talented company has bitten off more than it can chew… The narrative is often confusing, and the show is neither as funny, grotesque or moving as it sets out to be. The script is often written in mildly amusing and occasionally crude English doggerel, delivered with engaging Icelandic accents. Among the performers, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson is impressive as the despairing old Faust; Unnur Ösp Stefansdottir makes a beautiful and touching Greta and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason proves terrifying as a blood-drenched Mefisto with a nasty habit of snapping people’s necks.

  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (three stars) - “The Vesturport company first came to British attention with Romeo And Juliet, which used aerial and trapeze sequences as a metaphor for love. Since then, the company and Gardarsson have become known for acrobaticky theatre work…But it can also be meaningless and confusing…Saying that Goethe’s version is sometimes incoherent is not much of an excuse. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score is effective but not extraordinary I think Gardarsson intended to bring Faust back to life by giving it a big jolt of electricity, but he has misjudged the charge and fried it instead. “

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “A radical reappraisal… The use of the Young Vic’s space is audacious. But the storytelling suffers; there’s not enough erotic tension, and the plot evaporates as the emphasis on spectacle increases… the fluctuation between highly athletic sequences and periods of stasis means the production looks energetic without actually energising the audience... As Johann, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson is always watchable, and towards the end genuinely moving…More nuanced is the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which adds to the dreamlike atmosphere and is a welcome antidote to the repeated use of Wham’s 'Last Christmas'… But while the avowed intent is to make Goethe’s complex story accessible, in truth there isn’t much here for admirers of the German’s serene poetry.”

  • Michael Billington the Guardian (three stars) - “The stage brims with so much physical activity that it's not always easy to follow the narrative line… the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis atmospherically veers between the formers post-punk and elegiac styles… Amongst the world's most dazzling troupes... their multilayered adaptation passed over my head. The best thing one can do is to enjoy the spectacle and relish the impressive performances. Thorsteinn Gunnarsson and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as the old and young Johann and of Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir as the seductive Greta.”

    - Rosie Kaloki

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