Doctor Faustus is one of my favourite plays. Written by Christopher Marlowe in 1592, it signals a move away from medieval drama’s heavy use of allegory, towards the onstage portrayal of complex human psychology. Like some of Shakespeare’s most bewitching plays – A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest come to mind – there is a strangeness present here: dark, almost pre-gothic themes are thrown into relief by comedy and sexual innuendo. Although Marlowe was not nearly as prolific as his more celebrated contemporary, Dr Faustus stands alongside the Bard’s best as one of the Elizabethan period’s finest plays. The plot centres on the titular character’s pact with Lucifer and his servant Mephistopheles. Faustus will have Mephistopheles at his service for twenty-four years, after which his soul will be condemned to hell. Unfortunately, this rich work lost much of its shine in the Taliesin Theatre’s underwhelming production at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre.
The evening started promisingly. The corridor leading into the theatre was lined with actors in white masks, swaying and grasping menacingly at the audience members who walked through to take their seats. Doctor Faustus – played here, in an instance of gender-blind casting, by Georgie Murphy – sat at a dimly lit desk, books piled on one side, a MacBook at her fingertips. On the other side of the stage, the good and evil angels, played by Anusia Battersby and Laura O’Driscoll respectively, perched on a raised platform. The pair – symbolic of the inner forces of Faustus’ mind – remained onstage for almost the entire duration, occasionally intervening to guide Faustus towards sin or redemption. Their constant presence worked well, reminding the audience of Faustus’ ultimate lack of autonomy and control. He is as much guided by these angels as his is by his hubris. Murphy played Faustus with confidence, ensuring that the character’s slow decline from heightened arrogance to regret and self-hatred was convincing.
However, few other aspects of the production proved exciting. Mephistopheles, played by Thea Keller, looked menacing and stalked about the stage with purpose, but his delivery was sometimes feeble, and so often fell short of the grandeur required of his character’s speeches. Charles Pidgeon was commanding as Lucifer, appearing to speak from the gallery above the audience, but his second role as Cornelius was played with less authority. Valdes, played by Alex Christian, was similarly lacking in authority, and his lines were sometimes hard to hear. The two fools, played by Matt Roberts and Miranda Mackay, provided some well-executed and much-needed comedy, but these moments were few and far between.
The most jarring aspect was the occasional inclusion of masked dancers. In one scene, the seven dancers wore a different coloured mask, each representing one of the deadly sins. In theory, incorporating dance is an interesting idea, given the variety of practices that would have been present on Marlowe’s stage. Here, however, both the dance and its accompanying music added very little. Director Caitlin Jauncey and choreographer Alice Baldock seem to have been aiming for a fantastical – even frightening – spectacle, but this particular combination of sound and dance was more farcical than captivating.
The production’s fundamental problem, however, seemed to be thematic incoherence in staging and execution. Despite some aspects of the setting being updated, with MacBooks and iPads used, the archaic costumes of Faustus’ peers, the gilded dagger, and the quill used by Faustus to sign his contract with Lucifer, undermined this. Similarly, the production largely retained the Elizabethan dialogue, but Wagner, played by Amy Perkis, took on a kind of teenage precociousness, her speeches peppered with jarring colloquialisms. The issue here was not that modern references were incorporated into the sixteenth-century work; it was that these anachronisms were too half-hearted and inconsistent to make any significant impact. In theory, playing Faustus as a kind of modern-day Renaissance Man could allow for an interesting discussion of knowledge in the twenty-first Century, but in this case, the incoherence made it difficult to extract such a reading.
There were fleeting moments of redemption. The space was used effectively, with Mephistopheles and Lucifer appearing from the gallery above the audience, and walking through the middle of the seating. Faustus’ banishment into Hell was executed imaginatively, with a hoard of masked bodies dragging the damned Doctor into the gallery, while blinding lights shone out at the audience. This was a moment I felt was perfectly conceptualised and perfectly executed. But by this point, the production, just like Faustus, seemed powerless to redeem itself.
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