Faust by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, adapted by David Timson

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BBC Radio 3, 19 September 2010
Goethe's Faust is a familiar tale, retold in this production - based on a colloquial translation by John R. Wiliams - that reduced the book's original eight-hour running time into three hours and twenty minutes. In a prefatory introduction, Timson emphasized the enduring relevance of the book, in its focus on ecology issues and the struggle for power between Faust (the proverbial irresistible force) and Mephistopheles (an immovable object). Radio is perhaps the ideal medium to stage Goethe's work, with its proliferation of transformations and spectacular effects that would cost a small fortune either to put on stage or to film.
The experience of this production was a curious one; while admiring the fluency of Williams' translation, with its proliferation of verbal effects, it failed to engage the emotions. Perhaps this was due to the way the actors performed it - for the most part they employed a lilting, rhythmical method of delivery, emphasizing the basic iambic pentameter structure. As a result the speeches had a ritualistic, incantatory quality that became quite hypnotic, with the focus on the sound rather than the sense of the words. Perhaps this was director Timson's aim; to transform Goethe's work into a morality play with the speeches declaimed rather than spoken colloquially. However this kind of approach becomes difficult to sustain over a 220-minute running-time; I found myself nodding off on more than one occasion.
In thematic terms, I could be said to have fallen victim to Mephistopheles' (Toby Jones') temptations, as I lost my capacity to reason and fell asleep instead.
Nonetheless the production did have its compensations. Faust (Samuel West) and Mephistopheles had a rare old time competing for our attentions: West with his soft, hypnotic voice reminiscent of a British Henry Fonda; Jones with his infinite variety of hissing sibillants, resembling a snake trying to worm its way into Faust's (and the listeners') consciousness.
On the whole, however, I'd recommend listening to Gounod's opera as a more dramatic - and lively - transformation of Goethe's epic work.