Review: fester, The Cockpit (Camden Fringe)

Star Rating: ★★★

Halfpace Theatre’s new devised piece fester intriguingly takes inspiration from, and adapts itself from within, Goethe’s Faust, using the classic play as a springboard to explore marginalised identities and what would happen if they chose to reject the paths set before them, ferociously fighting back to stop the narrative in its tracks. Playing on the idea that many find the conclusion of Goethe’s original tragedy (Part One) unsatisfactory, much like many find the roles typically available to marginalised identities (such as those in Faust), equally as unsatisfactory. fester thus writes a new ending, a different part two if you will. Centring on Faust’s Gretchen, it gives her a little more fight, as the character is usually portrayed as a two-dimensional, innocent pawn with very little agency in the tempestuous games between man, heaven and hell. The narrative here, begins immediately after her death, Gretchen, having mistakenly woken up in hell in place of her would-be lover Heinrich Faust, hurriedly makes a deal with the devil, Mephistopheles, to bring him Faust in exchange for her freedom, thus igniting this idea of Gretchen wanting to be in control of her own destiny, no man, devil or god to puppet-master her. With Faust nowhere to be found, we are thus entered into this dual reality, Gretchen’s reality, an off shoot from the original play’s and then in conjunction with this is, that of a distressed writer who has lost Faust and is inserting himself instead into the piece, maliciously controlling the characters, to fix his creation so it will go back to the beginning and play as written. The writer seemingly enacting as a physical representation of the patriarchy and its oppression on marginalised groups. We watch with baited breath as the two world’s collide, the piece sinisterly toying with the fourth wall. A truly insightful preposition and reimagining. 

The piece is very much a work in progress, but it does throw up some interesting ideas and motifs like those aforementioned. In eerie silence five ensemble members enter, they stand in a circle and surround a copy Faust centre stage, after taking several slow inhales and exhales, they then go on to establish the world of the play, tenderly recanting the classic’s original plot and then beginning their version from the end of the original. As they do this they adopt various costume pieces and props transitioning from performers into characters, perfectly establishing the earlier mentioned dual reality, engendered in a theatrically representative manner. This is then revisited at the end, the actors transition back from characters to actors by removing these representative pieces and placing them on the ground, a direct rejection of the limited character(s) written by Goethe. This methodology establishes both the plot, as well as the intention behind the piece. We see the marginalised identities in both the actors and the characters. Mephistopheles is non-binary delivered by non binary performer Niamh Smith, God is female played by Kyrgyz actor Aijamal Nova, whilst Gretchen is now a determined Protagonist who wants more than what is ordained, portrayed by British-Czech actor Pavlina Karlo. They, (a duplicity of characters and actors) reject the boxes ‘the writer’ has seemingly tried to put them in and leave. Some excellent meaning making. We can vividly see, in the characters presented that there is room for improvement in both representation and the prevention of limiting actors, people even, because of their identity and, that this is not the end of the conversation, yet we also see how detrimental and un-motivational this can be for an actor, as here, they leave the space in a melancholic manner, a moment that seems to be defiantly stating that there is so much more work to be done. A moment that also pays homage to Goethe’s original, it is beautifully tragic, with very little resolve, everything still hanging in the air. There’s something incredibly clever about it and a sense that those without the biggest of voices are being given a space to make themselves seen and heard.

fester is also highly reliant on physical theatre, of which there are some wonderful expressions, demonstrating the ensemble’s skill and creativity. A particular moment of intrigue was the use of blackout, torches and movement sequences to create the impression of hellhounds observing the audience. At times the physical moments did however, have a tendency to fall flat or lack precision/clarity regarding varying sight-lines and the way the stage was lit at that moment in time. So, in the piece’s next iteration these will need to be looked at, cleaned up and developed, particularly in the transitions between dialogue and physical motifs. Similarly the piece has moments that are comedically vibrant, fester is after all a self-professed fusion of the silly and the sinister. The unrelentingly savage and abrupt nature of Mephistopheles, an unapologetic character with huge personality, is a wonderful example of this. As are their hellhounds who use physical comedy and non-verbal attributes to provide much of the humour in the early scenes of the piece, alongside some well-placed elevator music, need we say more? That being said the dialogue, particularly that of Mephistopheles needs further development in order to give the character more depth. There was one too many jokes about being on a fringe budget, alongside a few unnecessary expletives, a couple of these are of course are fine, but going overboard can mess with the integrity of a character and makes the dialogue appear unnatural/forced. A final development that would benefit the piece, is in the protagonist Gretchen, her bargaining with Mephistopheles is a great first step in taking control of her destiny, but beyond this, there needs to be more of a clear definition of her actually fighting back and taking control. Rather than a number of subtle hints. something else larger and inadvertently dramatic would work best, she’s almost a badass female protagonist but there needs to be a switch in her to take it to 100.

Performance-wise you cannot fault this five-strong ensemble, nor the direction provided by Megan Brewer. Particularly in the sound, which was mostly ensemble driven, intricately created by an eclectic, live mix of percussion instruments and vocal patterns, doing much to build atmosphere, sense of location or tension, demonstrable of the team effort required in order for this piece to succeed. The sound also ameliorating Jonathan Chan‘s lighting, to deliver a sharp, precise and dynamic synergy, ensuring the piece flowed with ease, quickly switching between scenes and sequences. To conclude, fester has great potential and will be a must see for anyone interested in work that breaks the mould or even those passionate about Goethe’s Faust, as it is a genuinely provocative adaptation. To find out more about Halfpace Theatre and what they have coming up next, click here

Credit: @HalfpaceTheatre

Ensemble: Bethany Monk-Lane, Niamh Smith, Pavlina Karlo, Aijamal Nova, Milo Juan. Director: Megan Brewer, Producer: Sarah Jordan Verghese, Movement Director: Monica Nicolaides, Designer: Daria Vasko, Lighting Designer: Jonathan Chan, Stage Manager: Morgan Lee.


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