When you make a pact with the devil, it’s unlikely to come accompanied by flowers, rainbows and the sweet sound of birdsong.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that James Perkins and Victoria Smart – the team behind the visual design for Storyhouse’s new production FAUSTUS: That Damned Woman – are creating a much darker world within the confines of the theatre’s intimate auditorium.
The ancient Greeks believed the world and everything in it was made of four elements.
And the striking and visceral staging of Chris Bush’s reworking of the Faustian legend will embrace those elements, in particular fire and water which are life-sustaining but which over the centuries have also been used to subdue and punish women.
James reveals: “There are real trees in the space, there’s real fire in lots of different forms – we’ve got fire with gas, fire paste, candles. We’re working closely with Sally Ferguson, the lighting designer, to see how we play with all these different sources.
“And there is rain, there are pipes that will drip water into drains. There’s a well where you can fill buckets, and those buckets can have people drown within them.
“It’s an idea of what you’re bringing into the world, bringing into the space. It’s our bodies, and that human connection to the elements.”
In addition, the set design will also make use of recycled materials.
The ‘Damned Woman’ of the title is Joanna Faustus, who sells her soul to Lucifer for the chance to change the course of history, her increasingly determined, some might say obsessive, quest taking her through – and out of – time over the course of four centuries.
So how have they taken that moving through time into account in their set and costume designs?
“Actually, in a way we haven’t,” says Victoria, who admits she was captivated by the ‘fascinating take’ on the traditional myth. “Our set is about it being out of time and very much a space for the performers to tell this particularly cycle of this story.
“The thing we’re really interested in is that this isn’t a story about the past. It’s a story that feels continuing. I think you can look around the world now and see so many women’s struggles that just feel exhausting.”
Similarly, the costumes will also reflect that continuation, speaking more about the character of their wearer than the time period they find themselves in.
Victoria says: “I was thinking about what Margaret Atwood said when somebody talked to her about The Handmaid’s Tale and asked: ‘do you think any of this could actually happen?’ because she’d written about this sci-fi, dystopian thing.
“And she said ‘well, everything that I’ve written about has already happened somewhere in the world.’”
While James has worked with Storyhouse before, on design for Christmas shows The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Seven, this is the first time as part of Good Teeth, the theatre design studio he and Victoria founded during lockdown.
The pair, who were both trained at Wimbledon College of Art, have known each other for a decade, and worked together on several projects before formalising their partnership.
Since then, they have created designs for productions like The Book Thief at Bolton Octagon, The Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare’s Globe and Little Shop of Horrors at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. They are also artistic associates at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Victoria explains: “We come from quite different angles sometimes, but it feels quite complementary. We start from different places and work our way to our meeting point.
“We’ve worked together so long we have a bit of a shorthand between us. So much of our process is us talking in our studio and working side by side. It’s an idea back and forth and back and forth.
“So, while on the surface it might sometimes look like – well this person did this drawing, and this person did this drawing – actually we often struggle to separate which idea came from who and when.”
This collaborative approach has worked particularly well for Faustus, and along with Sally Ferguson it has also embraced director Francesca Goodridge and composer and sound designer Russell Ditchfield.
“It’s rare to feel this confident about a show, about how good it will look,” James says. “And I think it’s because it’s built on a passion, and because of the subject matter it feels vital and resonant for everybody involved.”
For more information and to book tickets for FAUSTUS: That Damned Woman, click here.