Selling soul to the devil

This fiendishly good play about the restlessness in the human soul shows how an academic makes her life extraordinary

REVIEW / THEATRE

FAUST/US

Nine Years Theatre

Drama Centre Black Box/Thursday


An early scene in FAUST/US has the alchemist Faust (Mia Chee) drawing arcane symbols on the floor to summon an earth spirit. A background hum crescendos into the roar of tectonic plates grinding together.

Something powerful and magical is happening but poor, frustrated Faust cannot understand what the spirit is trying to convey. It takes her until almost the end of the play to learn how to navigate between the ordinary and extraordinary.

Similarly, it takes almost until the end of the play for the audience to see how different narrative threads and ideas have been brought together to create something out of the ordinary. It is a slow ride at the start, but fiendishly good once it picks up momentum.

FAUST/US is the first work by Nine Years Theatre to be created and directed by the group's associate director Cherilyn Woo. It is based on the 18th-century German play by Goethe, in which an ageing academic sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in exchange for a life of passion and adventure.

The academic is performed by Nine Years Theatre's co-founder Chee, so several plot points in the original have to be reworked.

Faust fathering an illegitimate child becomes the contemporary crime of co-authoring an anti-government book with her lover Gret (Neo Hai Bin, who also translated Woo's text into Mandarin).

The end result is the same. The lover is condemned to prison. But Woo's treatment of the event is much more than the old morality tale Goethe wrote. Gret is like Faust and like Mephistopheles (a delightfully snarky Timothy Wan), all caged in prisons of their own making. Gret cannot see past his shackles, even to notice the key Faust brings.

Similarly, Faust is so imprisoned in her life of academic success that even viewing her own garden through Mephistopheles' eyes is a transcendental experience.

Wan plays a cheeky devil who has much more in common with Faust than the omnipotent God (Hang Qian Chou) and the repartee between him and Chee sizzles.

But many of the best scenes rely on non-verbal action and sound designer Zai Tang.

Rushing waves and grinding earth demonstrate God parting the waters and creating the world in a few, breathless seconds. The sound of a demon dog barking is both funny and menacing, as Faust holds Mephistopheles at bay.

Woo has said FAUST/US is about the restlessness in the human soul, the constant hankering for something more than we have achieved. It is this restlessness that propels humanity towards art, towards creation and towards greatness.

Balanced between God and devil, Faust ends the play making the most out of her ordinary life, appearing extraordinary to the people she helps.

Not a bad bargain at all.

• FAUST/US is sold out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline 'Selling soul to the devil'. Print Edition | Subscribe