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We’ll always have Paris

Frank Castorf ’s seven-hour "Faust" is his last lap before the Volksbühne sells its soul. But is it any good? Find out and then catch May 12, 14, 26 and 27.

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Frank Castorf’s seven-hour Faust is his last lap before the Volksbühne sells its soul. But is it any good?

Right off the bat: Castorf’s farewell production might well be “all negative, nothing positive”, “a little provincial” and certainly “misogynist”, as a tap-dancing, puppet-like, Flemish-sounding Alexander Sheer says in his role as incoming intendant Chris Dercon.

But the seven-hour tour de force is also a theatre history lesson, monument to Castorf’s career, even a romp, if one where you fall asleep for a few minutes. Watching Faust, you start to understand what people mean when they say Castorf taught them about freedom – the piece is as loose and associative as ever, but this time, it feels less like self-assured, thrown-together bullshit and more like free jazz. Valery Tscheplanowa hobbles around as Margarete, one foot in a silver stiletto, the other in a thick knee brace. It was hard to buy that all the showgirl costumes and bare breasts are some kind of commentary on the male gaze rather than just reproducing it – until this sublime and likely accidental gesture. She beams.

Faust is set in 1940s Paris during the Algerian war, and there’s kind of an anticolonial theme as well. There’s the magnificent funhouse set with vintage posters for an Exposition Coloniale, borrowed text from Fanon, even (sarcastic gasp) black actors – one of whom, Abdoul Kader Traré, does a magnetic recitation of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” in French in the Metro. It’s not really clear what all this signifies – the inextricability of Germany’s two early-20th-century genocides? Whatever Castorf is trying to say, it doesn’t really land. But it would be unfair to expect anything different. The programme booklet, “How to be an asshole: Capitalism and Colonialism”, gives you an idea about the broadness (and maybe therefore toothlessness) of the message.

Goethe’s Faust II is a tangle of political commentary, metaphysical speculation, and bad science written at the end of his life – it’s practically unstageable. Castorf makes it seem easy and fun. To say nothing of aging rock star Martin Wuttke, alternating between a zombie-like mumble-mask and Iggy Pop hair and leather pants, or Sophie Roisas a gravel-throated chanteuse. But by one in the morning, everyone on stage is hoarse. We’re all a little more porous. We clap and clap and keep on clapping. 

Faust, May 12, 26, 27, 18:00, May 14, 16:00 I Volksbühne, Mitte