A review of West Yorkshire Playhouse and Citizens Theatre Glasgow’s co-production of Faustus by our new critic, Ben Braithwaite (@BenCVTW) …
I’ve been to the West Yorkshire Playhouse quite a few times throughout my life. Seeing The Little Shop of Horrors is one of the visits I remember the most, and like Doctor Faustus, hinges on the central conceit of a Faustian bargain. The difference between the comedy rock horror play and Faustus, of course, is that the latter is the reason that every English-speaker knows that a Faustian bargain is a thing to begin with. Originally written by Christopher Marlowe (mostly, probably) in the late sixteenth century, this adaptation includes third and fourth acts rewritten by Colin Teevan that transpose Faustus’ rise into a modern setting, and whilst unquestionably a compelling and daring modification, it raises as many questions as it answers and is in some ways a downfall as much as a strength.
The story, as it plays out in the vaguely nowish setting, is more than anything else best described as that of a sad nerd trying to be cool. Very much a staple of modern drama smush, the cliché appeals because so many can identify with it. Racked with doubt as almost all of us are, and as the young Marlowe (murdered at 29) must too have been, we can understand Faustus’ thirst for accomplishments that would in non-Satanic circumstances seem utterly unreachable. To begin with, Kevin Trainor’s performance was, honestly, grating a little. Much as life, though, the beginning of Marlowe’s text has some growing pains, and I quickly started enjoying what I now appreciate as a very good performance, fiery and expressive. I quickly developed a sense of the sort of person Faustus is – an elitist, finding most realms of study unsatisfying and with a desperate urge for the satisfaction that only accomplishment can bring. It’s a feeling that our modern lives still deny most of us.
Siobhan Redmond’s Mephistopheles, the demon bound to serve Faustus, is a character so enriched by her portrayal that it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better. Her delivery, giving the character an unearthly, vaguely continental accent, constantly reminds that she is not what she seems, and her backstory is to some degree explored in the new third and fourth acts. I can’t speak for the original Marlowe text, not being familiar with it, but I feel like maybe iterating so plainly that Mephistopheles had been such a horrible person spoilt the mystery in some sense.
That is a recurring theme with acts three and four. Forewarned that they have been rewritten by a contemporary playwright, and with their language being very different to Marlowe’s Elizabethan blank verse, they sit somewhat awkwardly in the centre of the play like a transplanted organ. The purpose of those acts – illustrating Faustus’ heady heights of success and the inevitable plummet towards death – would ruin immersion for modern audiences, reminding them how long ago the play was written. Of course our conceptions of success and fame and power are very different to those of the time Marlowe was writing. In that sense, I understand the motivations behind the rewrite, yet I still found myself asking what Marlowe would have thought; how he would have written this section of the play, whether he iterated the subtextual themes of the play so bluntly, whether he’d have included so many daft sex jokes.
I’m sounding overly critical here. It is my job, I suppose, but I do seek to try to be constructive. There was a lot to like about Doctor Faustus and I would still recommend it. Just perhaps don’t try to read too much into it. Every role was well acted at the very least, often better*. The production and lighting design was effective, not hammering home too heavily the fiery colours = evil cliché, and with the clever idea of setting the latter half of the play in the offstage area of Faustus’ own shows, the central part of the thrust stage flanked with the bulb-encircled mirrors that typify celebrity and create an infernal glow of their own. The play is full of clever little details that flesh out the story far beyond the mere script alone. The coming and going of the good and bad angels, representative of Faustus’ state of mind, is a noticeable one, and though a quite minimal role, Ann Louise Ross embodies the qualities of the former, patiently knitting whilst Faustus’ decadence envelops him. The portrayal of Lucifer as a sort of compère, too, gives pause for thought as to how to interpret exactly what Faustus’ bargain represents. Is this really a play about how important it is to be faithful to God? Is that even what Marlowe meant it to be?
In the end (and I don’t think a four-hundred year-old play needs a spoiler alert) Lucifer, a stickler for paperwork, collects on Faustus’ debt. Like Seymour with Audrey II, Faustus had thought in the short term and paid in the long. If you can, you should go and see Doctor Faustus. Not because it’s a 100% success, because I couldn’t in good faith say that it is. But whilst it’s very entertaining, the most important thing, in my opinion, is that companies still feel like they can do what Colin Teevan has done – dare to radically adapt a classic of literature. That takes guts, and was inevitably going to be subjected to criticism like mine. We as an audience and as critics have to decide whether the blood of sacred cows/florists nourishes us. If there’s anything that audiences are good at demanding, it’s blood.
*Incidentally I’m loath not to mention the performance of Alasdair Hankinson, whose many parts were minor but performed with such vigour that it was near impossible not to be watching him in any scene of which he was a part. In addition, he has a great arse and legs. There are more than a few bare arses in this play, not that I’m complaining.
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