She’ll be damned

In a modern version of the classic legend about to open at Chester’s Storyhouse, Faustus sells her soul to the devil for principled reasons and not for pleasure

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Greed, ambition and a belief that the rules don’t apply to them – Francesca Goodridge thinks audiences will find the protagonist of her new play uncomfortably familiar. And it’s not just because the legend of Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge and pleasure only to squander both, has been told for centuries.

“I think our audiences will recognise a lot of people who we are made to believe are working for us,” says the director. “With the recent events of the past couple of years still so fresh in our minds, it’s hard to not compare some of the themes and behaviours in this play to our so-called leaders. The difference might be said that Faustus is driven by a genuine belief that she is doing good and helping make the world a better place.”

Based on Johann Georg Faust, the itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician of the German Renaissance, who was denounced by the church as a blasphemer in league with the devil, the legend of Faust was famously retold on stage as Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe in the late 1500s and by John Wolfgang von Goethe in the early 1800s. Goodridge is taking on Chris Bush’s 2020 version, Faustus: That Damned Woman.

In 17th century London, Faustus is the daughter of a plague doctor father and herbalist mother who was tried and killed as a witch when she was a girl. She has a mistrust of organised religion and lives on the fringes of society. How could a fate bound to Lucifer be worse than one bound to any common man, she asks. “If you knew the lives we women lead, you’d understand the Devil is a catch.”

“In Marlowe’s version, Faustus has ample opportunity already in his world so the addition of power from the devil really wasn’t worlds away from the life he was already living,” says Goodridge. “He uses the magic to do tricks and squander his time making little change.”

But Bush’s Faustus sells her soul to have control of her destiny, and to ensure what happened to her mother cannot happen to her, or any other woman.

“It provokes us to question women’s place in society, and how we treat women who pursue greatness not just in history but still today. Why is it admirable for a man to achieve greatness, but a woman deserves ‘damnation’ for striving to be seen as a powerful person demanding equality?” Does theatre as an industry have a way to go before it can claim gender equality?

“In short, yes. It’s in all aspects of theatre, from playwrights to actors to crew members backstage. There is a lack of female voices, especially in leadership roles within theatre,” says Goodridge.

“I’ve been very lucky to be mentored by incredibly strong female theatre directors in my career, but I know that won’t be the case for everyone. My most recent production, A Pretty Shitty Love at Theatr Clwyd, was an all-female creative team, and at times it was difficult to find certain members of the team such as video design who were female due to the simple fact that there are fewer of them than men.”

Goodridge says it’s important to start these conversations so women know what roles are available in theatre and can understand how they find the pathways to be involved. For Faustus just one man is employed in a cast of seven.

“It was incredibly important to me that this story was told by women and their experiences of gender inequality today, and to ask how much this differs from the experiences women had in the 17th century.”

The Storyhouse presents an entirely original production of Bush’s script but when the play premiered in the West End in 2020 it received mixed reviews. Has Goodridge done anything to address the critics’ concerns?

“That’s tricky to answer because I think every production is so personal to that creative team,” she says. “I try not to read too much into reviews, because theatre is such a unique experience for every person. Something I might absolutely adore and be enthralled by, the person sat next to me might be sleeping through! It’s all about what story reverberates for you.”

But Goodridge adds that she has put her own spin on the play.

“Naturally the production will be very different. There are some exciting casting decisions we’ve taken in terms of who plays what characters, and how they multirole within the piece. As Faustus moves through time faces become a blur.”

The play is co-produced by Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, which works with people in recovery from addiction or mental ill health, and choreographed by its artistic director Paul Bayes Kitcher, a former dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

“They are the only company in the UK providing exceptional dance theatre experiences for people in recovery from addiction,” says Goodridge. “Working with Paul feels exciting on this production because Faustus is dealing with her own addiction to achieving greatness and making deals with the devil, so we want this to be a physical piece of theatre that really interrogates how the body deals with trauma.”

Faustus: That Damned Woman is at Storyhouse, Chester, 3-18 February (

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