Faust Refreshed: Des McAnuff in Conversation

Classic Arts Features   Faust Refreshed: Des McAnuff in Conversation
In his new production of Gounod’s Faust, starring Jonas Kaufmann, director Des McAnuff brings the mythical tale into a new era.


Tell us about your approach to this production.

I got to know the widow of the physicist and anthropologist Jacob Bronowski. One of the legendary stories about him is how he visited Nagasaki after the holocaust and chose to never practice physics again. That story had a very powerful effect on me. So the idea for Faust is to use the first half of the 20th century as the setting. We start at the end of World War II and then go back to Faust’s youth, which would be at the beginning of World War I. It seemed like a way of extracting the drama out of this material, making it pertinent, while remaining faithful to Gounod. The idea is that this is all happening inside Faust’s head in a split second at the time of suicide. He attempts to recapture the innocence that, in fact, was lost with the detonation of the atom bomb.

How does the design of the show reflect this setting?

The costumes are certainly inspired by the periods that we move through, from the Great War into the twenties and thirties through World War II, but with a dreamlike quality, as if they are a manifestation of Faust’s fantasy. The sets were influenced by the surrealists, but also by other genres of art from those decades, like the constructivists and the futurists.

What would you like audiences to take away from your production?

As with any great work of art, it’s about using it as a window to our own lives and times. The events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki really changed the world forever, and I think the Faust legend prophesized that in a very pertinent way. Faust has acquired ultimate knowledge, which applies in a horrifying way to our ability to destroy ourselves. I think that’s the Faustian journey right there. He pursues innocence through Marguerite and, of course, ends up tainting that innocence—maligning it and destroying it.

How did you first become interested in the Faust story?

My father was a French horn player who had a collection of classical records, and one of them happened to be Gounod’s Faust, which I adored. Later when I got into drama school, one of the projects to audition for the design program was Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. And then as a young director in Toronto, I went on to do that play. So it’s always been with me.

Faust runs through January 19.

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