Faust Chroma

Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington

11/02/2009 - 14/02/2009

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

18/02/2009 - 21/02/2009

Production Details

Human puppets, Nazis, chameleons. In this updated Faust, changing colours is the key to survival and power in our time. An "erotic and insightful exploration of guilt, repression and the importance of art" (Canta). Judged Best Theatre, Dunedin Fringe 2008.

Character Profiles

Gustav Gründgens was Germany’s leading actor and director before, during, and after the Nazi era. His most famous role was Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. He died suddenly in Manila in 1963. Suicide was suspected.

Mephisto(pheles) is the devil character from Goethe’s Faust, summoned into being by Faust.

Hermann Göring was Adolf Hitler’s second in command. He appointed Gustav leader of the Nazi state theatres. He committed suicide in his jail cell the day before his scheduled execution.

Emmy Göring was an actress famous for playing Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust. She gave up acting in order to marry Hermann Göring.

Klaus Mann was a writer. He was the eldest son of the famous German author Thomas Mann and the brother of Erika Mann. He committed suicide in 1949.

Erika Mann was an actress. She was the eldest child of Thomas Mann, sister of Klaus Mann, and the first wife of Gustav.

Flicki (Elisabeth Flickenschildt) was an actress famous for playing Marthe in Goethe’s Faust.

Gretchen is a character from Goethe’s Faust. In Faust Chroma she is based on the actress Marianne Hoppe who was forced to give up her Jewish lover in order to become Gustav’s second wife.

Adolf Hitler was the leader, or Führer, of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when he committed suicide.

Director’s statement

Faust Chroma is part of an ongoing inquiry by Free Theatre Christchurch into the nature of acting. Why do we act, both in theatre and in life? This matter is explored not only in the content but also in the form of the performance, which juxtaposes different types of acting: exaggerated theatrical styles, moments of improvisation, "authentic" not-acting with self-written text, etc.

The starting point for this exploration is the figure of Gustav Gründgens, this very famous actor who decides not to act anymore, but to live, and who is dying in the attempt.

But what is living, then? Can one avoid acting, even in life? This question is connected with a comparison to the German fascist society through which Gründgens lived, in which politicians were for the first time consciously acquiring power through performance, where mass rallies, films, broadcasting and other live and media performances were at the centre of the political movement. Now, it’s a matter of course that this – acting – is what politicians are expected to do.

So we ask ourselves: are we still able to live in an authentic manner? Are there any authentic voices or emotions out there? Are they even possible?

These questions are addressed even, or especially, through the notion of romantic love. It is revealing to put the Romanticism of Goethe, Schumann, and Schubert side by side with the Holocaust and ask "How do they go together?" The 19th century Austrian playwright Grillparzer suggested that sentimentality is just the other side of brutality.

Goethe’s Faust sees theatre as a moral institution. Mephistopheles is the actor, who puts on disguises and engages in trickery. Faust is the authentic man, always searching for deeper meaning in life, who is seduced into a pact with the devil, into becoming an actor himself.

This production questions what sort of pact the actors have, or try to establish, with the audience. Do we try to seduce them into something? Like politicians do we try to change them, to manipulate their emotions and thoughts? Or, by questioning this process, do we make the audience aware that they are living the life of actors, playing certain roles that have been prescribed for them, such that their lives are not really theirs?

It’s very important for me to stress the musicality of the performance. The whole show is a dance of death, a musical cabaret, with the piano centre stage. The importance of the piano is complementary to the questions we ask. The piano is a tool for the manipulation – it creates the mood – but it is also destructive of the moods. The piano as object and the music made with it are both deconstructed.

So the music is taking on songs from the ’20s, old 19th Century German Romanticism, but also new compositions by our musician and set designer Chris Reddington. It is a collage of different styles, like the acting itself. The performance styles, as they’re all set to music, are never realistic. I cast the pianist as God who’s in control of the actors by his heavenly music, as they all come to life as marionettes, even though Mephisto thinks he is controlling them.

I had talked for some time with Bavarian playwright and filmmaker Werner Fritsch about a collaboration, as he has been interested in creating a new Faust. I chose his play Chroma as a starting text and had his permission to work with and change the text, translate, and rewrite as I saw fit. I also asked the actors to contribute their own responses to certain ideas, so most of the actors have their own voices in it. In the end, he’s very satisfied with our version and even wants to have it published in that form, keeping all the additions that we made.

In his play text, Fritsch uses some of his filmic work as interludes, discrete scenes in their own right, but we put them over or under the live acting. The films work much like the music, they colour things, literally and emotionally. They enhance moods, but also undermine them.

We also added our own filmic scenes in which the actors "karaoke" video footage of the Faust film that Gründgens made himself. This karaoke poses the question of acting in a very direct way, by replaying a role that is already given – which again corresponds to the idea of actors as marionettes. This is how Goethe also planned his Faust. All the world’s a stage, and people are just playing out the roles given to them by God. But when there’s no God, we play out the roles given us by film and television and other popular models. We’re all playing our lives or living our plays.

God / Pianist Chris Reddington
Gustav Gründgens Ryan Reynolds
Mephistopheles Marian McCurdy & Sophie Lee
Emmy Göring Greta Bond
Klaus Mann Simon Troon
Hermann Göring George Parker
Erika Mann Coralie Winn
Flicki Liz Boldt
Gretchen Emma Johnston
Adolf Hitler Simon Troon

Film Images 1960 Faust film starring Gründgens
Faust Chroma Passion by Werner Fritsch

1hr 30 mins

Memorable and thought-provoking

Review by John C Ross 21st Feb 2009

Unquestionably, this is an exhilaratingly vital and adventurous work of metatheatre, which explores intriguingly the interpenetrating of theatre and real (especially political) life. But did I get the point of much more than half of what was going on? Um – no. And others I spoke with were even more baffled and lost.

It should have helped somewhat if all the audience-members had been exhorted, before the show began, to read and absorb the programme notes (provided in very small print). With no interval, there’s no chance to do so midway.

Goethe’s play Faust is, we’re told, one of the greatest classic works of German theatre, and Gustaf Gründgens one of the finest German actors ever, especially famous for his playing of the central role of Mephistopheles, its diabolical tempter. Yet, despite my being an avid theatre-goer, here and in London, I’ve never seen it, only superficially ever read it, in translation, years ago, hence the introduction here of several of its characters meant little, and recollections of Marlowe’s "Dr Faustus" were simply misleading, since Goethe’s character Faust would forfeit his soul not through failure to repent but through failure of the will to go on striving. It’s odd that so much of this is unfamiliar.

Throughout, an enigmatically back-to-the-audience pianist (Chris Reddington) is playing appropriate mood-music, at times quite bizarre or frenetic. The protagonist Gustaf (Ryan Reynolds) is parked on a high-raised level, ostensibly on a bed in a hotel in Manila in the year 1963 (where he would die), tormented by fever, painful memories and – in drug-induced hallucinations – by the tauntings of one or sometimes two Mephisto figures (Marian McCurdy and Sophie Lee).

Below on the main stage are re-enacted episodes from Faust and other plays he directed, and from his life. His rants are often intense and powerful, and coupled with projections on a gauze of the real Gustaf, in performance for a film of the play in 1960.

The six other performers are actors in Gustaf’s company, or political figures. During the heyday of the Nazi regime, Gustaf himself accepted being appointed head of all the state-run theatres in the Reich, in effect entering into a kind of Faustian diabolic pact. Once that was over, he and his company are seen trying to rediscover how the world of theatre could regain a measure of independence from implication in the theatre of the world. As mere entertainers? For himself, is this enough, or even possible?

George Parker as Hermann Goering builds up to a quite alarming ambience of authority, power and menace; and yet this involves a dimension of patently conscious performing. After the Nazi surrender, and the Nuremberg trials, he will justify his choice of suicide by poison as a refusal to accept participating in the wrong kind of theatre, a hanging rather than a firing-squad death.  Hitler, likewise, hitherto a mild-mannered actor (Simon Troon as Klaus Mann), who suddenly dons a toothbrush moustache, proves to be another posturer, yet seriously scary.

Otherwise the six (sometimes five, excluding the Goering character) function as a well-coordinated, versatile and vigorous ensemble. The four women (Greta Bond, Coralie Winn, Liz Boldt and Emma Johnson) likewise shift between individualised and ensemble roles. At one Emma Johnson sings an entire song acrobatically hanging upside down, and sings it impressively well.

It’s a memorable and thought-provoking theatre-experience, and highly creditable to all involved in it.


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Review by Lynn Freeman 18th Feb 2009

Faust Chroma is one of those intensely disturbing angst-ridden plays that you can struggle with while watching it on stage but it embeds itself in your memory and is deeply rewarding. Werner Fritsch is a contemporary German playwright who is unafraid to reference the Second World War, at a time when many want only to look ahead. 

Fritsch blends the story of Gustaf Gründgens, Germany’s greatest thespian and a Nazi, with that of the role he was most famous for playing, the damned and tormented Faust.  As Gründgens, Ryan Reynolds is outstanding, playing it with a searing intensity that is at times painful to watch.

Emma Johnston is astonishing as the equally tormented Gretchen, forced to give up her Jewish lover to marry Gründgens – astonishing as an actress and a singer.  The whole cast is mind-blowing in a production that pushes them all emotionally and physically.

Peter Falkenberg’s direction is gutsy and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, fitting the text like a glove.

This is a touring production from Christchurch’s Free Theatre and we can only hope to see more of them up here.


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Unashamedly theatrical; interrogates theatre relentlessly

Review by Helen Sims 16th Feb 2009

When a company names Ubu Roi as its patron saint you know you are in for something out of the ordinary. Faust Chroma certainly was that. This extravagant piece of avant garde theatre is thrilling and best enjoyed if you sit back and don’t try too hard to understand every moment (although reading the programme notes in advance might help, especially for the opening scenes).

At the centre of Faust Chroma is Gustaf Gründgens – literally, the play begins with him elevated on a platform in the centre of the stage. His delirious ravings are difficult to decipher, but it becomes apparent that he is dying in Manila. His life flashes before his eyes – most of it intimately tied up with the play that has dominated his life, Goethe’s Faust. Gründgens had played Mephistopholes in Faust and then directed productions of the play in Hitler’s Germany after he was appointed the head of all state theatres in Germany by Hermann Göring. Gründgens survives the fall of the Reich – but his decision to abandon the stage a decade later seems to equate with an end to life. Over the course of half an hour we are treated to a series of events, both ‘on’ the stage and ‘off’ which blur the distinction between life and art; reality and pretending. Gründgens occupies both the roles of Mephistopholes and Faust, suggesting they are perhaps not two opposing characters, but components of an essential being. The role of the theatre and the ethics of ‘making believe’ in Nazi Germany is also interrogated.

A particular skill of this company appears to be creating visually stunning moments which are full of impact as they assault the eye and ear. From the beginning of the play, when a long haired, long coated man sits at the stripped down piano and proceeds to produce both tortuous and melodious sounds from it, to the projection of the 1960 film of Faust starring Gründgens over the actors playing the parts of Faust and Mephistopholes through to abstract torture and death, the staging is full of impact and pushes the actors to their physical limits. These scenes full of movement and sound, often featuring the human characters as puppets manipulated by the devils, are juxtaposed nicely against others in which the text is emphasised, such as Gründgens monologue to his actors on the role of the theatre, in which he calls for relentless realism. Some moments, such as the delirious deathbed ravings and the piano piece at the conclusion of the show, are allowed to go on a little long, risking the waning of the audience’s interest.

Ryan Reynolds as Gründgens is suitably committed and wild eyed. The two Mephistopholes, Marian McCurdy and Sophie Lee intertwine themselves into scenes in a sinister fashion. Emma Johnston is a real standout performer as the easily manipulated Gretchen, with her powerful singing adding an excellent extra element to many scenes. The rest of the cast who make up various people in Gründgens’ life work together well in their ensemble scenes as well as performing credibly in their own roles. Chris Reddington who is continuously on the stage at the piano produces amazing live sound effects and I note is also credited as ‘God’ and as the set designer.

I was extremely thankful to the Free Theatre for bringing this work up from Christchurch. It is an unashamedly theatrical work that interrogates theatre relentlessly. It may be a ‘pact with the devil’ that the question cannot escape the terms of its reference (it is after all, a theatrical play), but it is a thrilling watch. It was an exciting part of the Fringe and a rare opportunity to see German avant garde. Gründgens was obsessed with the fear that by dying his most famous role would be forgotten – but this play seems to indicate that the Faustian pact will be played out again and again – in theatre and in life.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.



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Are authentic voices or emotions possible?

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Feb 2009

Faust Chroma is wildly different in style and content from The Intricate Art of Actually Caring but they have something in common, apart from their excellent performances and highly inventive, absorbing, and exciting productions.

They both explore whether there are any authentic voices or emotions out there. Are they even possible? asks the director of Christchurch’s Free Theatre, Peter Falkenberg, in a Faust Chroma programme note.

The play deals with the life and death of a famous German actor, Gustaf Grundgens, who made his name as Mephisto in Faust, and like Faust he made a bargain – with the Nazis, when Göring placed him in charge of all state-run theatres in the Reich.

His career continued after the war until he retired from the theatre when he decided to travel the world and "live real life." He died, probably suicide, in a hotel room in Manila in 1963. The play starts high up in the hotel room as a sort of phantasmagoria with his fevered mind replaying his scenes from Faust (all eerily visible on a gauze screen with scenes from a 1960 film of Faust with Grundgens as Mephisto).

Below, the rest of the excellent cast, whose singing is top draw, change from puppets to caricatures of real people (Hitler, Göring, and brother and sister Klaus and Erika Mann: the former Grundgens’ lover, the latter his wife), as well as characters from Faust, and they all take part in a Brecht-Weill-like scene of Weimar decadence, a dance at Göring’s wedding, and, in the weakest scene of the play, a gauche attempt to disturb the complacency of the Kiwi audience.


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A rich feast for the senses and the intellect

Review by John Smythe 13th Feb 2009

Do we ever stop acting? If not, why not? And who is in control? While actors attempt to manipulate their audiences, are they in turn being manipulated by unseen forces? Or might they be willing accomplices?

These are the central questions posed in the extraordinary Faust Chroma, directed from a text by German playwright, filmmaker and novelist Werner Fritsch by PeterFalkenberg with Free Theatre Christchurch (and first staged in their Fritsch Festival last year, before going on to win ‘Best Theatre’ in the Dunedin Fringe).

Central and aloft is the dying actor / director Gustaf Gründgens, famed for directing and playing Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. He also accepted – from Herman ("Whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver") Göring – the position of leader of the state-run theatres in Nazi Germany, rationalising that it was imperative to preserve the spirit of their classic drama.

"Chroma" refers to the purity of a color; its freedom from white or gray. But the quest for purity in Hilter’s Germany produced anything but. And of course Faust sold his soul to the Devil in his quest for knowledge, making him the epitome of impurity. So Faust Chroma is an oxymoronic title that points to the multi-hued moral complexities of staying alive under Nazi rules.  

The opening sequence prepares us well. Actors in living colour body-sync the roles of Faust and Mephisto behind the black and white projection of Gustaf Gründgens’ film, speaking the rhyming couplets in English over the German soundtrack. Initially Ryan Reynolds, who is playing Gründgens, plays Faust and Marian McCurdy ‘doppelgangs’ the real Gründgens’ Mephisto … then they swap.  

Reynolds’ Gründgens turns out to be in a hotel room in malaria-riddled Manila and it becomes apparent he’s homosexual, which of course is a crime against National Socialism, alongside being a Jew or communist …

Two Mephistos – McCurdy and Sophie Lee – play puppeteers to the line-up of collapsed marionettes below then slither head-first down curtains to their level. They permeate subsequent proceedings in various guises.

Emma Johnston plays and sings Gretchen from Faust, who is based here (the programme tells us) on Marianne Hoppe, who had to give up her Jewish lover in order to become Gustaf’s second wife. Thus she participates in the most memorable scene of the night: While she hangs upside down from the platform, singing beautifully, Nazi soldiers describe the horrendous tortures inflicted on German women who slept with Jews, and women gently paint her nails, let down and brush her soft blonde hair … 

We have earlier learned of the Nazi ‘cure’ for the ‘disease’ of homosexuality: testosterone injected into the testes. Can additives create ‘purity’?

Emmy (Greta Bond), another actress famed for her Gretchen in Faust, gives it all up to marry Göring (George Parker). She becomes embroiled in the dilemma of whether one plays false kisses with real feeling or real kisses with false feeling on stage. "The way you kiss Gustaf on stage: that is a poem!" But is it pure poetry?

Yet the theatre is the only place where you know the knock on the door is not the SS but a beautiful woman in a blue dress; where one can become fully human … Except there is theatre and theatre: cheap ‘show pony’ gimmicks to generate mindless escapism versus theatre committed to the discovery of new truths that can change the world … Cue the Easter Egg hunt!

As Faust Chroma explores all this it plays out in multiple styles to exemplify the contradictions and paradoxes of theatre and life itself – e.g. the economy: "Everything we thought was real is not!" – to the musical accompaniment of Chris Reddingon who extracts sound from every part of his naked piano and also designed the excellent set (lit by Aidan Simmons).

Simon Troon (who plays Klaus Mann, son of the more famous Thomas, and also Hitler), Coralie Winn (Erika Mann, older sister to Klaus, an actress and Gustaf’s first wife) and Liz Bolt (‘Flicki’ – actress Elisabeth Flickenschildt, whose Marthe conspired with Mephisto to lead Faust astray) complete the splendid ensemble.

The close harmony of the women singing after the war is over is another special moment among many. Meanwhile the chameleon is changing his colour again … It’s called acting. As for his death, that’s real enough, but is it externally caused or self-inflicted?

There are some sections that drag on too long for my liking and the blending of the play’s end into a piano recital that also outstays its welcome, and denies us the chance to applaud, seems a bit pretentious to me since it’s a production that declares its theatrical artifice throughout.

Nevertheless Faust Chroma is a shot in the arm for alternative theatre: a rich feast for the senses and the intellect that lingers well after the final chromatic scale fades to silence.


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