Staging Goethe’s infernal masterpiece takes a cast of 100 and inventive, far-reaching vision. Thankfully director Silviu Purcarete has both.
They used to say Faust was unstageable. Written over a period of 60 years by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, this classic of European literature ranges from the knock-about to the esoteric, straddling two fat volumes and featuring scores of characters, including angels, witches, baboons, lemurs and dogs.
But in the hands of the brilliant Romanian director Silviu Purcarete, the unstageable dramatic poem is merely one improbable element among many.
Chief among them is the size of the cast. At the end of an astonishing performance in a dilapidated factory in Sibiu, a Medieval town in Transylvania, over 100 actors take their bow. For the previous two hours, they have been responsible for a spectacular and highly theatrical re-telling of the story of the learned Faust who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for the promise of sensual happiness.
Sparks fly, walls crumble and devils descend after an audacious coup de theatre that plunges the audience into the heart of the action. No wonder queues of people are turned away from every performance of the sell-out show. It will be fascinating to see what shape it takes when it plays in the expansive space of Ingliston in the Edinburgh International Festival.
Purcarete is typically modest about his gargantuan achievement. Where most directors would tremble about dealing with such numbers, the 59-year-old takes it all in his stride. "It’s part of the job," says the man who brought a cast of 120 to Scotland for Les Danaides in 1996. "I knew the company, I knew the actors. It's a lot of people, but I take advantage of the structures of theatre in Romania where there are permanent companies. Some ideas are in my head, others evolve in rehearsal."
The laidback impression is confirmed by Ofelia Popii. She plays Mephistopheles, her combination of elfin features, vulnerability and fierce authority bringing a gender-bending ambiguity to the role. The director's skill, she says, is to give just the right amount of guidance, no more and no less.
"He's a big personality," she says. "He doesn't do much, he doesn't get nervous, he's not flamboyant, he doesn't waste energy. He doesn't have to do that because he catches our intentions anyway and people trust him and follow him. Sometimes you have the feeling that he's not giving you anything, but in fact, he gives you a little bit here and a little bit there and in the end the whole thing comes together."
For Purcarete, the tale of temptation and excess is one that never loses its appeal, even today when the idea of hell is out of fashion. "It's one of the most obsessive myths," he says. "In Goethe's text and in my performance there is not a glimpse of hell; it is Walpurgis Night – the feast of the witches. It is a popular fair, with circus, clowns and cheap effects. In Goethe's play, even if Faust is guilty of a lot of things, at the end his salvation is there."
Ingliston Lowland Hall
Aug 18–22, 8pm
From £20, 0131 473 2000
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