As we all stagger out, heads throbbing and hearts pounding, from the final instalment of the Harry Potter series this summer, a multi-billion dollar behemoth that has offered virtually nothing other than polished Cliff’s notes to an overrated series of children’s books, the question will resonate with many: why didn’t Terry Gilliam direct them? He was JK Rowling’s first choice, and throughout his career has excelled in creating fantastical environments imbued with a sense of wonder and danger, from the neo-Orwellian phantasmagorias of Brazil to Hunter S Thompson’s Las Vegas.
The answer is a simple one. Gilliam, one of the few true visionaries still working in English language cinema, is seen by studios as ‘unreliable’ and ‘not box office’. His career has been affected by appalling incidences of bad luck, ranging from Heath Ledger’s death while filming the (interesting but flawed) Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus to his having to abandon his long-cherished Don Quixote project due to a near-Biblical run of unfortunate occurrences that included the illness of one of its stars, flash floods and the intervention of military jets. His past few films have disappointed, both commercially and critically.
So, what next? While some would retire to their chateaux and lick their wounds, Gilliam, a remarkably energetic 70-year old, has continued to innovate, directing short films, a well-received webcast for the Arcade Fire from Madison Square Garden and now accepting the ENO’s offer to direct Berlioz’ rarely staged The Damnation of Faust. Perhaps surprisingly, he hasn’t ever directed an opera before, although he came extremely close to staging Andrea Chenier at La Scala in 2008. (That old bugbear, ‘scheduling conflicts’, played an unfortunate part.) But it would seem fitting to combine his crazed visual genius with the ENO’s latest attempts at hiring high-profile directors from outside the world of opera to breathe life into often unusual and challenging projects. Sometimes, as with Simon McBurney’s A Dog’s Heart, the result is a resounding success. At others, as with Mike Figgis’ recent Lucrezia Borgia, it’s a more disappointing blend of two incompatible styles.
What helps Gilliam’s production of The Damnation of Faust is the piece’s comparatively non-canonical nature. Of course everyone knows its most famous part, the Hungarian March, but it’s seldom staged as an opera due to its lengthy instrumental sections and comparative absence of sustained narrative. Gilliam, a man never to shy away from a challenge, takes the central dynamic of Faust falling in love with Marguerite and being tempted by the devilish Mephistopheles, and moves it from its traditional 19th century setting to a time-hopping period between the fin-de-siecle of Romanticism to the altogether more chilling vision of Nazi Europe. The results are sometimes funny, occasionally horrific and mainly viscerally gripping. Of course, Nazis on the stage bring about the unfortunate memories of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but Gilliam manages to shy away from the absurdity and unintentional humour that a well-turned swastika can still engender in the wrong hands.
The production (designed by Hildegard Bechtler) first suggests, stunningly, the mountains and grand vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, but gradually moves into darker and more disturbing territory, with fascist slogans daubed on grim, utilitarian buildings that cannot but help remind viewers of Brazil’s claustrophobic dystopias. The performances and singing are all very strong, especially from Christopher Purves as a suave, shaven-headed Mephistopheles who doubles up as a devilish MC, and from a shock-headed ginger Peter Hoare as the bewildered, outwitted Faust.
I felt occasionally surprised that, despite the visual opulence and intelligent use of video, there are comparatively few moments where Gilliam goes flat-out for broke visually. If you’re expecting Monty Python-esque flying eyeballs and enormous expanding cities, forget it. What he does do, in harness with Edward Gardner’s predictably excellent conducting, is to treat Berlioz’ curious hybrid with a respect and seriousness that it seldom has received in the past, and manages to make some apposite points about the human tendency to look the other way in times of suffering as well.
So, Hollywood. Gilliam has proved that he can handle a large-scale production in an unorthodox environment, and that he can do so with taste, wit, imagination and sensitivity. Any studio executives who brave their self-imposed cultural apartheid and venture out to the Coliseum during the production’s run might be pleasantly surprised. Let’s hope that some paws are put into chequebooks and that Gilliam is allowed a final crack at directing the Don Quixote story. Heaven only knows, he’s sold his soul to enough Faustian pacts to deserve it.
Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust runs at the ENO until 7th June. For tickets and information, please visit their website.