The Tragical History of Dr Faustus

Christopher Marlowe
Third Party Productions
Festival Marquee, Bollington Festival, Macclesfield, and touring

Production photo

Third Party Productions from Hastings brings its own three-actor take on Marlowe's version of the Faust myth to a tent in a field in the small town of Bollington near Macclesfield as part of its major arts, science and sports festival for just one performance.

Third Party, as directed by by Trestle and Told By An Idiot founder John Wright, integrates parts of Marlowe's text – about the scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for 24 years of unlimited knowledge and the power he believes goes with this – with more modern speech and references, physical clowning, stage magic, songs and even a bit of ventriloquism.

On a set consisting of a desk and bookcase plus several sets of stepladders, all painted black, a rather jovial and likeable Faustus (Nicholas Collett) rejects current learning on all subjects by examining the top text books of his day and throwing them away. He then conjures up Mephistopheles (Anthony Gleave), who appears out of the bookcase with his picnic basket and ukulele, looking and speaking like an upper-class playboy from the 1920s out for a day's punting on the river. In exchange for the promise of his immortal soul, Mephistopheles concedes to Faustus's demands to bring Lucifer himself – or rather herself (Shelley Atkinson) – before him. Lucifer turns out to be a woman who regards everything with playful, childish wonder and who laughs easily at their games.

Much of the play consists of a series of set pieces including hypnotising Faustus and taking him on an imaginary dragon ride on his desk, entertaining him with a ventriloquist dummy of himself, singing songs (notably the George Formby hit 'Mr Woo') and bits of clowning and circular conversations that sometimes look like out-takes from Waiting for Godot.

The performances work well within the context of the interpretation of the play: Collett is pleasant, likeable and a little vacant as Faust, Gleave puts across the version of Mephistopheles that could have been created by P G Wodehouse competently and Atkinson's warm, friendly Lucifer has a very infectious smile.

There are some aspects of the production that work well. At first, the way modern speech is integrated with Marlowe's verse is smooth and subtle, but later there are some more gratuitous asides where the actors seem to be leaving the text behind to try to get laughs. The dragon ride is quite effective and fits the story, but some of the set pieces are fine in themselves but leave the audience wondering what they have to do with the story, such as the ventriloquist act. There are other parts where very little happens at all. Some of the conjuring tricks are integrated nicely into the action, although their execution is not always at a standard that entirely conceals how the trick was done.

The main loss here is the real power of the tragedy. When Faustus is turned into a couch potato who wants everything without working for it, he doesn't have as far to fall, and this amiable clown can be chatty and friendly with the audience but the more serious consequences of his actions such as not being able to pray or repent and his final descent into Hell do not come across at all and seem like trivial elements of the plot rather than the whole purpose of it. The director in the programme refers to the play as 'an atheist tragedy', which seems rather odd in a play in which Lucifer appears as a character and discusses his fall from Heaven when he was cast out by God (Marlowe's reputation as an atheist is based mostly on contemporary accusations from his enemies, and the term 'atheist' did not necessarily mean what it means now).

There is a lot of imagination in the staging and plenty to enjoy, despite its flaws, and certainly plenty for 'A' level students to debate, but even at just an hour and a half in length with no interval it feels like it would benefit from some cutting.

Howard Loxton reviewed this production at the New Diorama, London, in 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton