Doctor Faustus, as we know him from folk legend, is a doomed overreacher whose quest for worldly power earns him eternal damnation in his pact with the devil. Chris Bush’s antihero is a very different creation: Johanna Faustus is an earnest 17th-century working woman whose mother has been hanged for witchcraft. Bush, who has previously contemporised the medieval mystery plays, refashions the Faustus myth with promising inversions beyond the gender switch.
Where the Faustus of Goethe and Marlowe’s plays is led to the devil by hubris and ambition, Johanna is a principled renegade who wants to use her diabolical powers altruistically. “I shall do good,” she says as she seals the deal with Lucifer.
The play raises themes of faith, magic and female destiny, which resonate in Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s stage design. It is initially dark, cavernous and rustic, with plants and shrubbery hinting at Johanna’s dangerous love of potions and healing through herbalism.
Christian morality is challenged as Johanna speaks of God’s abandonment of her mother and raises the possibility that an alliance with the devil might lead to good, not evil. But these themes are delivered bare-boned, without enough plotted drama to bring them to life.
Johanna gains the power of time travel and her initial role as a daughter seeking redress for her mother’s wrongful death is subsumed by endeavours to educate herself in a post-Enlightenment world (“Take me to a library,” she orders Mephistopheles). Through learning she strives to be in control of her own destiny, “in thrall to no man”, and find the elixir for eternal life on a global scale.
Jodie McNee as Johanna is a plucky heroine who speaks her lines declaratively. There is little intimacy or psychological exposure in her exchanges with other characters, which keeps us at a distance. Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles emerges in white suit, Cuban heels and the painted face of a pantomime dame. “Chin up,” he tells Johanna, and his campness is part of the humour that rollicks, sometimes awkwardly, alongside the gothic melodrama. At times it works: Mephistopheles complains about being treated like a lowly secretary. “You’re more an executive assistant,” Johanna bats back.
The ideas behind Caroline Byrne’s production for the Lyric and Headlong are original and ambitious but don’t combine into a glorious whole. It is a shame because there is some fantastic revisionism here. As it is, the play ends up overreaching.
At the Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 22 February. Then touring.