Contemporary steampunk

The cast of Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky: KBG Purple (in front in lizard costume as the...
The cast of Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky: KBG Purple (in front in lizard costume as the Bandersnatch); (middle row from left) Keir Russell, Miguel Nitis (as Faust) and Craig Storey (as Dr Jabberwocky); (back row from left) Fredrik Soderstrom (as Pride), Tony Pleydell and Logan Goethe (as the envy twins). Photo by Linda Robertson.
Fire juggling, spectacular effects, steampunk, music, Faust selling his soul, and the lure of seven deadly sins take place among the atmospheric 19th-century steam machinery at the Dunedin Gasworks Museum next week. Charmian Smith talks to Keir Russell and Jonathan Cweorth about their show for the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

The story of Faust, the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for forbidden pleasures and power, has been made into plays, operas, and puppet shows, but now a brand-new version includes fire juggling, dance, music and steampunk, all in the eerie atmosphere of large working steam engines huffing rhythmically. Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky: a steampunk fire fable is produced by the Firebugs, who prefer to perform in existing locations and this year they have chosen to use the Dunedin Gasworks Museum.

''It's a really interesting, unusual sort of space and it's very rare to have that much 19th-century machinery still in its original setting and still functioning. It will be all on full steam during the production,'' Jonathan Cweorth, author of the work, said.

After their The fire of life, presented at Chingford Park, won the best outdoor show of the Fringe last year, the Firebugs decided to build on the experience and do another with new tricks and more elaborate effects, according to Keir Russell, one of the Firebugs directors.

Cweorth says the tale of Faust has such a rich theatrical tradition it lends itself to including different performance styles such as contortionists, belly dancers, fire performers, and steampunk. As at last year's performance, the audience will walk from scene to scene as the story progresses. Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky is set in an alternative 19th-century New Zealand. Dr Jabberwocky, the demonic Mephistopheles character, is envisioned as a 19th-century salesman.

''He's a certified dealer in second-hand souls, so we are bringing out the mercantile element in Mephistopheles. There's lots of dark humour tied to it, and he facilitates the meetings with the seven deadly sins,'' Cweorth explains.

''We are trying to weave the Jabberwocky poem through it: I think Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time. Jabberwocky is a steampunk poem in its own way.''

Faust, a bored and frustrated student, sells his soul for the opportunity to taste the seven deadly sins, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, avarice, wrath and pride.

''The sins give scope for lots of fun, and we've tried to make each sin as contemporary as possible within the steampunk limits. Each scene incorporates different sorts of fire toys, different costume elements and an extensive supporting cast of witches and succubi, as well as a Bandersnatch and a Jubjub Bird from Jabberwocky,'' he said.

''The contemporary manifestations of the sins come out through their traditional names - things like consumerism, lust for power, threats to democracy, corruption with having power, exploitation. John Key does not escape unscathed in this production!''

Like Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe's play Dr Faustus, Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky had plenty of comedy beneath the serious moral tale, he said.

Because some of the show takes place indoors among the moving machinery, the Firebugs will be using small, localised pieces of fire manipulated by experienced fire performers, according to Russell.

''It's going to be spectacular nonetheless in that space. A lot of the effects done indoors will be via other special effects. Outside we will be letting go. There will be fireballs flying round and the forge will be fired up. It will be spectacular stuff,'' he said.

Cweorth pointed out the Firebugs have an excellent safety record and always have safety officers and equipment standing by.

Some of the quiet, breathy sounds from gasworks machinery will be amplified during the performance, but all the music will be live, most of it from the Dunedin band Girl on Girl Action, supplemented by drums, accordion and nyckleharpa.

''Some of the songs were composed for the show and in some cases adapted from 19th-century pieces like the 'Ride of the Valkyries' and the soldiers' chorus from Gounod's Faust,'' he said.

With a cast of about 18 and more than 45 involved in the production, it is a large show. A twist they took as a good omen is that one of the performers, Logan Goethe, is a direct descendant of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote a romantic German epic on the Faust story.

The pair say the Dunedin Firebugs are the only group in the country integrating fire into theatrical performance and collaborating with many other local groups such as belly dancers, the Dunedin Fire and Circus Club, the Dunedin Medieval and Renaissance Society, Jack Frost Morris dancers, the Gasworks Gadgeteers steampunk group, as well as many other artists and aspiring artists.

The show
Mr Faust and Dr Jabberwocky: a steampunk fire fable, a Firebugs production, is at the Dunedin Gasworks Museum, 20 Braemar St, South Dunedin, at 6.30pm and 8.30pm from March 14 to 17, as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival. Audiences are limited to 50 and bookings are essential. Book at

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