Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre has opened its autumn and winter season with Marlowe's demonic Doctor Faustus from guest director Toby Frow with a cast of 35.
Faustus is bored with the sum total of human knowledge and feels compelled to know more, and so he uses a spell from a book of magic to conjure up Mephistopheles, Lucifer's right-hand man, and signs a pact in his own blood to promise that in return for knowledge of all things in the universe he will deliver his body and soul to Lucifer after twenty-four years.
His knowledge gives him magical powers, which he uses to entertain, to play childish practical jokes and to wreak vengeance on anyone who opposes or speaks ill of him. Despite the entreaties of the Good Angel and an old man who appears at the end to persuade him to repent and save himself, Faustus is unable to turn back to Heaven and the hour eventually comes when Lucifer and Mephistopheles come to claim his soul and take him down to Hell.
Marlowe's tale can be seen on the surface as a morality tale to choose God over the Devil and a fierce condemnation of the Catholic Church, which fits in with conventional views of his time, but, like everything to do with Marlowe, it is a bit more complicated than that and may also be attacking the Protestant fear of the quest for secular knowledge. However as no text is extant from Marlowe's lifetime, it is difficult to know for certain which bits came from Marlowe and which were added later to quench the Jacobean thirst for spectacle and horror.
Toby Frow's production is certainly spectacular with a regular cast of twelve actors playing multiple roles supplemented by 23 acting students from Manchester Metropolitan University playing devils, partygoers and general ensemble, and we also see lots of large pieces of scenery and huge props. This is supplemented by some real conjuring tricks created by magic consultant Darren Lang to increase the air of mystery, magic and danger in the air.
But does it all add up to anything substantial? Well, it's entertaining but it does seem to lack any substance behind it, and where it seems to be trying to be scary it doesn't really succeed. There is an hour and three quarters of the production before the interval, but the time rarely drags because of the spectacle, the movement, the sound and the magic tricks. After the interval there is rather more ponderous philosophising and less spectacle, even for the ending which seems, as written, to require it but Frow has opted to end with a whimper.
Patrick O'Kane is an imposing physical presence as Faustus as he strides around the stage with an intense expression on his face enjoying his power, but his strong accent mixed with an Elizabethan text peppered with Latin makes some of his dialogue unintelligible. Ian Redford is, by contrast, crystal clear in his speaking of the text as he superbly plays Mephistopheles as a kindly old man with a dog collar and a doctor's leather bag. Gavin Marshall puts in an impressive physical performance as Beelzebub, who descends upside-down on a rope from the roof each time he enters, as the completely unintelligible comedy servant Dick and as the Duke of Saxony who changes impressively into Alexander the Great to have a lengthy sword fight.
Jamie de Courcey's Benvolio is probably the best-developed character with real depth and an individual story of his own for a short while. Also significant are Stephen Hudson as servant Wagner, Gwendoline Christie as a female Lucifer, Ian Midlane as a particularly hateful Pope and Rory Murphy in a jester's suit as Robin, although four centuries have not been kind to some of the comedy he has to deliver.
Ben Stones has created a set that works very well largely and looks good. His large, imposing stone heads with slightly muffled recorded voices are an interesting choice for the seven deadly sins and look impressive but are not as imposing or frightening as they perhaps were meant to be, something that applies to many elements of the show. The acting students work hard bringing objects on and off and manipulating them, but their acting comes across like that of acting students: very committed but perhaps a bit too intense in the party scenes and a bit Shaun of the Dead as the devils. Darren Lang has put together a series of magic tricks that, while not new or original, are woven very well into the production, even if the actors do telegraph the fact that they are about to perform a trick at times.
As a whole, this has to be seen as a frivolous piece of entertainment wrapped around Marlowe's play, and as such it has much to commend it. There is plenty of spectacle and plenty to entertain and amuse, even if the scary parts are unlikely even to make anyone jump and sometimes come across more as funny than frightening. The second half is a bit disappointing as the spectacle is dropped in favour of earnest speeches and the ending is particularly unsatisfying, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this three-hour production.
Running until 9th October 2010
Reviewer: David Chadderton