The Soul's The Thing: Dr Faustus, Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, 8 Sept – 9 Oct

Dr Faustus is another excellent, darkly comic and deeply soul-searching production by the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Christopher Marlowe’s timeless classic about the man who sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of wild revelry, unbounded knowledge and magical powers, is a must-see for anyone who loves the play, the occult or simply enjoys being thrilled and spooked.

It is impossible to write of Dr Faustus without first referencing the debate over the two versions of the play. The Royal Exchange overcomes this dilemma by finding a middle ground, invoking some of the brevity of the A-text yet incorporating the comic scenes of the B-text. The result is a performance that includes the best of Marlowe’s paradoxical narrative and beautiful speeches, and which makes full use of the comedy and slapstick elements to appeal to all kinds of theatregoer. By using the comic scenes the play is more easily interpreted by those who have never read or seen Dr Faustus, because they hold a mirror up to the main action.

It is worth mentioning for those who have never been to the Exchange, that it is a formidable venue both in terms of its physical space and its productions. The theatre module is a circular frame with seating all around and a stage in the very centre of the audience, situated within an exquisite high-domed hall. As this means there is very little that can be done with set and props, the theatre suits the renaissance drama that it so often puts on because it offers a slightly more realistic impression of how the plays would have been performed in the own time. Actors would have appeared at ‘balconies’, descended to the stage from great heights, or come up through trapdoors. Therefore it is fortunate that the director, Toby Frow, has a great deal of imagination, as the cast use the theatre space in as many ways as possible.

For Dr Faustus the circular stage itself is designed as an intricate chart of the sky and constellations, overlaid with a projection of a conjuror’s pentagram which Faustus steps into when he invokes the devil. The middle seating-tier is decorated as bookshelves with parchment and candles, which creates the illusion of Faustus’ study. As the lights go down there is a definite sense of fearful anticipation, which has stuck with the play since its first performance sometime between 1588-94. Owing to the puritanical suspicion surrounding the theatre at this time and the sacrilegious treatment of Catholicism in Dr Faustus, superstition has never been very far from the performances of this play.

As the lights come on Stephen Hudson’s confident Wagner, student and servant to Faustus, enters the stage and takes the place of the Chorus, framing the play with the prologue and epilogue. During his brief history of Faustus’ life to date actors wield a dummy on strings with a distorted, masked face. They seat him at his desk and as the prologue blends seamlessly into the first scene, Wagner strips Faustus of his mask before exiting the stage. We are confronted with Faustus sat in his study at the exact moment he is contemplating giving up his learning to pursue magic. This unmasking and severing of strings symbolically mark the beginning of his flight for supernatural independence; here is a man taking control of his own fate.

Patrick O’Kane was a convincing Faustus plagued by psychological turmoil when tempted by the good and bad angels, which appeared in voice rather than flesh. However, at times I struggled with his softly spoken accent to grasp some of the more complicated verse, yet this became easier as the play went on. He was adept at playing to the multifaceted nature of the central character, at times deep in anguish and at others flaunting the arrogant air of Faustus the comedian. While at first I did not quite buy into the endearing vision of Ian Redford’s Mephistopheles as the old cleric, his pacified nature, which lacked gravitas, served to make his eventual relinquishing of Faustus all the more painful. However, I thought the best performance came from Rory Murphy, who played Robin. Although his professional debut after graduating from acting school this summer, his performance made the comic dialogue accessible and brought out the brilliant naivety in all of the comic characters.

The nature of the language in the opening scene tends to jar with present day viewers, as it is not entirely clear what is going on. However, when Wagner appears on stage covered in sacrificial blood the play takes a comedic turn, which helps it become easier to interpret. The staging of this play is difficult, yet the Exchange pulls it off in quite a feat; I found myself wondering at the illusion of magic being performed on-stage. The scene where Faustus is pursued by Benvolio and his gang, and is subsequently beheaded, completely took the audience by surprise. Similarly, the scene where his leg is pulled off is cleverly acted. In fact it was this grotesque humour that gave the performance a hint of the Monty Python about it. The bloody realism made me eager to see how they were possibly going to enact the end scene where Faustus is claimed by the devils.

However, the production’s approach to the end of the play is more serious and sedate. This is the point at which the performance takes its most significant leave from the text and seems to add its own interpretation to Faustus’ fate. From the moment at which hell is revealed to Faustus – as the stage slides away and he finds himself stood on the precipice of the glowing red hollow – he is then left alone in which he struggles once more with repentance. He even momentarily turns to prayer, which is never explicitly stated in either text, and attempts to climb up to heaven, though he feels himself pulled down by hell. As the clock tolls midnight no devils come to collect Faustus, as happens in each of the texts. Instead, he walks towards the abyss and lies down in it as though in a coffin. It is a simple and dignified end to a play that traditionally closes with the dismemberment of Faustus’ body. As Faustus symbolically buries himself in Christian ceremony, body and soul seemingly intact, the suggestion is that Faustus ultimately does redeem his soul by first judging himself as a man and submitting himself to hell.

It is easy to see how theatre was a source of controversy in Elizabethan England when even the Royal Exchange’s production of Dr Faustus today still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. In part this is down to how well the Exchange interprets Renaissance drama, emphasising the classic elements of death, sex, violence and the grotesque. The Exchange revels in the play’s use of medieval tropes with the embodiment of the seven deadly sins, in a wholly repulsive manner, with oversized faces being manoeuvred across the stage in nightmarish fashion. Similarly the use of dancing masked spirits, erotic yet threatening, besiege the stage at the whim of the devils. Although archetypal of renaissance drama these themes highlight the deeply humanistic side to these plays and the Royal Exchange portrays them in such a way that it is impossible not to come away questioning your own moral code. The Royal Exchange has always been good at recognising the mood of the nation and exploiting this in its productions; the theatre can still be as dangerous today as it was in Elizabethan England. The scene where Faustus and Mephistopheles abuse the Pope seems resonant in light of the current Pope’s controversial visit to the UK. Moreover, the plight of the individual, who dares to overreach himself, is perhaps more relevant than ever in this age of celebrity. When Faustus is invited to perform at the Duke of Vanholt’s court he is clearly deflated. His soul already begins to deteriorate being exploited for the very power he wished to achieve; he is now no less a slave to others’ whims than Mephistopheles is to those of Faustus. Seeing these issues played out on stage makes you realise how little has changed in 400 years, which is why the play still continues to fascinate.

Dr Faustus is an intricate foray into the psychological and religious entanglement of man and of society, both in the 16th century and today. The undeniable enjoyment of the audience showed how medieval and renaissance dramatic devices still cater to our contemporary tastes and underline how Dr Faustus is still a classic text with an almost supernatural power to enthral.

Dr Faustus

The Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester

8 September – 9 October 2010

Tickets from £9

Variety of concessions available, particularly to students and under 26s.

See website for more information, ticket details and performance times.

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