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Giles Woodforde takes in a sinister technological reworking of Goethe's classic poem of damnation

Over 12,000 lines, taking 21 hours to deliver: that was Goethe’s dramatic poem Faust when staged in 2000.

Altogether, 35 actors were involved in the marathon slog. Now, in complete contrast, The Watermill premieres a new version adapted by Ian McDiarmid (of Star Wars fame), which takes only one-and-a-quarter hours to perform, and involves just three actors.

McDiarmid himself plays Faust, presenting him as the crumpled, disillusioned don familiar from many an episode of Morse and Lewis. The world of books is his universe, he tells us, adding: “round and round we go, but ignorance is our fate”. His emotional and sex lives are non-existent.

Into this sorrowful picture step former student Mephisto (Mephistopheles in the original), and a teenage girl, Gretchen. Faust’s latent desires are quickly awakened, but it is very obvious that Gretchen simply regards him as a stereotype dirty old man. The solution, therefore, is for Faust to switch bodies with Mephisto, in the hope of becoming young and handsome once more. The results are disastrous.

The Watermill production (director Lisa Blair) makes much use of modern stage technology. Jacques Miche, playing Mephisto, lip-syncs his wooing of Gretchen to McDiarmid’s pre-recorded voice, and so doesn’t get much chance to develop the usual devilish Mephisto character – he’s dressed in modern, office-style, white shirt and trousers too, there are no forked-tail demon costumes here. Digital projection is used to conjure up a series of suitably unsettling, frequently changing backdrops (video designer Zsolt Balogh).

Crucially, McDiarmid delivers Goethe’s verse with skill and fervour, both in his adaptation and in his performance as Faust.

Daisy Fairclough, recently graduated from the National Youth Theatre, thoroughly convinces as Gretchen, presenting a character who is both lively and vibrant but is also innocent and the holder of strong religious principles. She just needs to allow a little more light and shade into her voice.

Obviously this ultra stripped-down production cannot explore every corner of Goethe’s mammoth classic, but it does have a very good go at making Faust just that little bit more accessible.

4/5

*Continues until March 25.