Fester is a new devised physical theatre performance based on the story of Gretchen from Goethe’s Faust. Produced by Halfpace Theatre, a new company dedicated to new work and devised theatre created by artists of underrepresented backgrounds, the show was performed at the Cockpit Theatre during the Camden Fringe. Devised by a majority migrant and marginalized gender team with Megan Brewer’s direction and Daria Vasko’s design, the show offers a playful and powerful reinterpretation of Goethe’s seminal work told through the lens of its titular female character, Gretchen. With strong performances by the ensemble and an intriguing design, this show leaves us with many reflections about the representation of marginalized individuals by drawing our attention towards the character of Gretchen and her struggle to exist in a world crafted for her by others.
Led by the ensemble comprising Mikko Juan, Pavlina Karlo, Bethany Monk-Lane, Niamh Smith and Aijamal Nova, the show relies on excerpts from the source text that serve as a starting point for the action and intersperses it with self-referential conversations, evoking the play-within-a-play structure that allows the audience to contextualize what they are seeing. The show begins with Gretchen, who awakens to find herself (mistakenly) in hell. Dazed and confused, she looks for Faust to find answers, striking a deal with the devil Mephistopheles to send her back to Earth. There, she finds her neighbour Marthe who insists that Faust has a gift for her. Gretchen slowly recollects her memory and starts to realize that this isn’t the first time that this was happening, that it had happened many times before. As this epiphany starts to overwhelm her, we see performers start to break character and insist on starting the story again without Gretchen’s existentialist interruptions, but she won’t have it. Gretchen finally discovers agency and awareness to take charge of her own destiny, away from the hands of men, devils, and even gods.
The ensemble of performers works well together, with well-timed movements and chemistry that lingers. Performers Mikko Juan and Niamh Smith bring a special energy to the stage, striking a delicate balance between the different languages of their characters – dialogues from the source text and witty quips from the present day – and keep the audience engaged throughout. Karlo’s portrayal of Gretchen blends curiosity with rebellion, aptly capturing her inner transformation to become more assertive. Monk-Lane and Nova craft the most adorable hellhounds (aka the devil’s assistants) you’d probably come across, and support the other ensemble members by doubling up on live music and stage transitions. Monica Nicolaides’ movement direction enables performers to use their physicality and gestures to create humorous and powerful micro-moments on stage. Vasko’s design, combined with Jonathan Chan’s light design and the ensemble’s scenographic efforts create some magical moments on stage, such as the use of handheld lights to manifest hellhounds and the creation of the ‘hell-evator’. Brewer’s direction allows the action to move swiftly, balancing text, movement and scenographic elements to craft a compelling yet accessible story. What’s remarkable is that someone like me, who has not read Faust previously, is able to engage with the material.
To summarize, Fester by Halfpace Theatre is a playful, powerful and infinitely intriguing take on Goethe’s Faust that blends strong physical theatre and scenographic elements. Whilst Brewer says the show is still a work in progress, the company is already at an excellent starting point.
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 13th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★
Fester was performed at the Camden Fringe on 13th and 14th August. Learn more about upcoming shows and Halfpace theatre at https://twitter.com/halfpacetheatre