first night

Doctor Faustus

Rebecca Mackinnon enjoys Peculius Stage's soulful production of Christopher Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus'

In my humble opinion, had Marlowe lived beyond his premature death aged 33, we’d be trotting off, not to Stratford, but to Canterbury, for the Royal Marlowe Company’s revival production of Genghis Khan (following his theme of the charismatic tyrant) starring Anthony Sher, while a bloke called Will Shakespeare would have faded into (relative) obscurity alongside Shirley, Marston and Dekker (who? Exactly.). While Faustus may lack the palpable and pathetically human heart Shakespeare imbues in Lear, Chris outstrips Will in spiritual and metaphysical sophistication and sheer, primal terror of hell. So, clearly, I have very high opinions of the play, am fantastically picky and very hard to please. I also apologise that at points I might regurgitate some of my Renaissance literature exam. Good to know I’ve learned something during the course of my degree...

I am happy to be able to say that Peculius has staged a production of this play that, while not without its flaws, is nevertheless extremely competent and engaging. Half the battle was won by the choice of venue – the Norman Chapel is theatre at its most atmospheric, and from the start there was a dynamic and intelligent use of the space, with the lighting rigs used in tandem with a series of sharply focused torch beams, and a candlelit altar displaying an ironically ostentatious crucifix. I would have liked to see a little more originality in the conceptualisation of the chorus (probably I am simply jaded by one too many productions – not just of Faustus – in which an all-in-black chorus of abstract beings pepper the play with their...abstraction) but despite the notoriously tricky space, they moved well and did add a certain chill to the atmosphere.

Before I go any further, I must pause to congratulate the director on a deeply intelligent choice of soundscape. The irony of utilising sacred music as the backdrop for such a play would be lost on nobody; in addition, it was beautifully executed, underscoring the language with haunting precision and often chilling timing. 

Faustus himself (Callum Cheatle) was played with a very well-pitched charismatic arrogance. We are meant to deeply dislike yet be strangely drawn to the Doctor (we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed by our own impulses towards a Bacchic, primal evil within ourselves, represented by Faustus), and this Cheatle certainly achieved. At the point at which he signs his soul away in blood, I felt that in becoming as frightened and fraught as he did, he detracted somewhat from the magnitude of his fall into fear at the end; he is apprehensive, physically embodied in the staying of his blood, but at this point it is intellectual fear, and little more. However, Cheatle commanded the space for the duration; he interpreted and delivered the by no means meagre amount of lines with subtlety and intelligence. Some very significant lines were skipped over – but the play is so full of moments of blistering brilliance that were every one of them to be drawn out we’d have been there all night, so this is easily forgivable

Casting a female (Lucy Cornell) as Mephistopheles was a brave decision, and one that paid off. The nature of the relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles became very interesting to watch; Cornell’s intense eyes and sensuously delivered consonants made her seem gleefully, manipulatively diabolic, and yet painfully in love with Faustus, or at least what he represents. The old adage, ‘misery loves company’, became in her hands an excruciating dichotomy of humour and pathos, and her first appearance, accompanied by the dissonant choral shriek, sent a very genuine shiver down the spine.

Unfortunately, the ending of the play was for me the biggest disappointment. I in no way mean this to dishearten anyone, or to say that it wasn’t climactic/impressive/frightening – it was indeed all of these things. My problem with it lies in context, which is perhaps unfair; Doctor Faustus, borne of a long tradition of medieval mystery plays in which was portrayed a very physical fire-and-brimstone image of hell, turned convention on its head by suggesting that hell was not a place but a state of mind. As Mephistopheles says, ‘for where we are is hell.’ Faustus dies, torn apart not physically, but mentally and spiritually; his death for me would have been far more powerful and poignant had we seen no outward suggestion of physical danger whatsoever. Quiet yet total emotional fracture would have suited the metaphysical bent of Marlowe’s meaning far more appropriately. However, the screaming of the demons offstage before his death was incredibly discomfiting, the music timed and performed to absolute perfection, and the death throes of the Doctor himself were unpleasant to watch.

All in all, a pretty comprehensive warning against the dangers of selling one’s soul to the devil. If you didn’t already know that that was a bad idea, that is.

10 February 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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