“The world hasn’t ended. But it’s not getting better. It just keeps going on – and on – and on – and on.” A pretty grim statement, but so speaks the Chorus at the end of the New Theatre’s recent performance of Faust is Dead. By the time the play’s arc of self-realisation and moral degradation has reached its end point, you are beginning to agree. By now Pete and Elena (played by Alex Mawby and the smouldering Georgina Jeronymides-Norie) have developed a relationship that has brought them to the cusp of fetish and criminality. Elena has predicted the ‘death of mankind’ on a late night chat show and embarked on a trajectory of hedonistic exploration. She ends up in Pete’s house, where, unable to live life without the anaesthetising filter of a camera, he starts to film her. An addictive inter-reliance results. Elena displays an insatiable drive for sexual knowledge of the seemingly asexual Pete, while he feeds off the new experiences she is gradually revealing to him. When she has had her fill, Elena moves on to the self-harming Donny (Richard Hill). However, his attempt to please Elena and “make it real” results in tragedy.
Sexually explicit, Tom Barnes’s production bravely enters taboo areas to represent the avid, spiralling hunt for new sensations, and oblivion of consciousness. While sometimes overacted, Mawby and Jeronymides-Norie successfully create a relationship built on utilisation rather than tenderness. Pete offers Elena a sexual prey, while Elena offers Pete a way of engaging with reality – a coaxing out from his virtual world into the sheer sensuality of “experience”.
The comedy element seems the performance’s biggest difficulty. While cameos like Chris Read’s rioting chav and eulogising pop star are in themselves hilarious, perhaps they are overly played for laughs. They stand slightly disconnected from the play, rather than integrated in it to provide an absurdist counterpoint. Perhaps the same could be said of Donny, whose façade of restless positivity lacks the dynamism to display the real terror of his instability. However, these flaws don’t get in the way of what Faust is Dead is doing. There are no neat resolutions, no real ways of closing off the play from your own personal reality. From the moment you enter the auditorium to find Laura Gallop’s haunting Chorus member sat waiting and staring, you enter a cycle of invasive examination. The play uses two drop-down projector screens, sometimes showing setting, sometimes being directly fed images from Pete’s camera. When the camera is turned on the audience during a sex scene, there is evident discomfort. The implication that we, as an audience, are as insatiable as Elena in the consumption of Pete’s virginity is far reaching. We realise our lives are lived too much through a virtual filter, and become dumbly frightened of the uncontrollable reality of actual experience. Read’s rioting chav and Donny’s unhealthy reliance on his online persona show us ways in which we have become anaesthetised by the virtual.
All of this takes place on a bare set. Although the symbolic potential of the space could have been better exploited, the emptiness successfully represents a barren interior space. It is this sparseness that best represents the production. Faust is Dead is bare bones. Every word carries just that little bit more weight. The performances effectively operate the play’s intention of pushing theatrical conventions of ‘what can be displayed’. In doing so it charts our fetishized escape from consciousness, and the half-virtual exploration of our darkest impulses. Well done to the New Theatre for generating a very unsettling, ambitious production.