Fringe 2009, Gryphon Theatre
February 11-14 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

WHEN A company names Ubu Roi as its patron saint you know you are in for something out of the ordinary. Faust Chroma certainly was that. This extravagant piece of avant garde theatre is thrilling and best enjoyed if you sit back and don’t try too hard to understand every moment (although reading the programme notes in advance might help, especially for the opening scenes).

At the centre of Faust Chroma is Gustaf Gründgens – literally, the play begins with him elevated on a platform in the centre of the stage. His delirious ravings are difficult to decipher, but it becomes apparent that he is dying in Manila. His life flashes before his eyes – most of it intimately tied up with the play that has dominated his life, Goethe’s Faust. Gründgens had played Mephistopholes in Faust and then directed productions of the play in Hitler’s Germany after he was appointed the head of all state theatres in Germany by Hermann Göring. Gründgens survives the fall of the Reich – but his decision to abandon the stage a decade later seems to equate with an end to life. Over the course of half an hour we are treated to a series of events, both ‘on’ the stage and ‘off’ which blur the distinction between life and art; reality and pretending. Gründgens occupies both the roles of Mephistopholes and Faust, suggesting they are perhaps not two opposing characters, but components of an essential being. The role of the theatre and the ethics of ‘making believe’ in Nazi Germany is also interrogated.

A particular skill of this company appears to be creating visually stunning moments which are full of impact as they assault the eye and ear. From the beginning of the play, when a long haired, long coated man sits at the stripped down piano and proceeds to produce both tortuous and melodious sounds from it, to the projection of the 1960 film of Faust starring Gründgens over the actors playing the parts of Faust and Mephistopholes through to abstract torture and death, the staging is full of impact and pushes the actors to their physical limits. These scenes full of movement and sound, often featuring the human characters as puppets manipulated by the devils, are juxtaposed nicely against others in which the text is emphasised, such as Gründgens monologue to his actors on the role of the theatre, in which he calls for relentless realism. Some moments, such as the delirious deathbed ravings and the piano piece at the conclusion of the show, are allowed to go on a little long, risking the waning of the audience’s interest.

Ryan Reynolds as Gründgens is suitably committed and wild eyed. The two Mephistopholes, Marian McCurdy and Sophie Lee intertwine themselves into scenes in a sinister fashion. Emma Johnston is a real standout performer as the easily manipulated Gretchen, with her powerful singing adding an excellent extra element to many scenes. The rest of the cast who make up various people in Gründgens’ life work together well in their ensemble scenes as well as performing credibly in their own roles. Chris Reddington who is continuously on the stage at the piano produces amazing live sound effects and I note is also credited as ‘God’ and as the set designer.

I was extremely thankful to the Free Theatre for bringing this work up from Christchurch. It is an unashamedly theatrical work that interrogates theatre relentlessly. It may be a ‘pact with the devil’ that the question cannot escape the terms of its reference (it is after all, a theatrical play), but it is a thrilling watch. It was an exciting part of the Fringe and a rare opportunity to see German avant garde. Gründgens was obsessed with the fear that by dying his most famous role would be forgotten – but this play seems to indicate that the Faustian pact will be played out again and again – in theatre and in life.