The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
New Diorama Theatre
This is a very enjoyable show but not one for stick-in-the-mud purists. Third Party is a company that has its own bold way of invigorating the classic drama repertoire. If you object to tinkering with the text be warned there is a lot here that isn't Marlowe and a lot of Marlowe is missing. Cast your prejudices aside and enjoy this for its refreshing vitality.
Actor-manager Edward Alleyn probably put the original on because he recognized it as a crowd pleaser and if he was around today I think he, and probably Kit Marlowe too, would give this their approval. The play has been filleted to keep the clear lines of the plot - the man who sells his soul to the devil to live the good life. Gone are the comic scenes that are quite difficult to make work with modern audiences except in terms of slapstick, gone are the satires on the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, you don't need to know about the sixteenth century world to understand things.
You don't get any large scale magic effects, though a swivelling bookcase becomes a discovery space and sleight of hand and invitations to pick a card are the repertoire of magician Mephistophilis, sidekick of a ukulele-playing female Lucifer, whom Faustus conjures to his side with Latin incantations. A fan and a pair of bright red high-heels that suddenly appear upon his feet turn Anthony Gleave's Mephistophilis into a woman. The Seven Deadly Sins parade before us, but with Nicholas Collett's Faustus discovering them manifested in himself, while beautiful Helen of Troy, 'the face that launched a thousand ships' is figured on a tee-shirt.
In place of the sixteenth century jokes we get plenty of contemporary comic interjection that grows out of the situation which is revealed as its bare essentials: Hells' Lord - or in this case Lady (Shelley Atkinson) and her servant playing games with poor Faustus.
Nevertheless plenty of what Ben Jonson called "Marlowe's mighty line" survives and Collett speaks it with a fluency that many in more conventional productions could learn from. Right from the start, delivering the opening monologue and then sitting in a chair and becoming Faustus in his study, he speaks as though the thought has come to him with those long sentences carried on the breath. No self-conscious versifying. Maybe he takes it too far in the direction of not consciously relishing the verse. The great speech where 'Christ's blood streams in the firmament' went for little, delivered out to the side of the stage - though perhaps this fits a production in which Faustus seems, like Marlowe himself to have little real believe in God and the idea of salvation and indeed there is no descent to hell to end the play.
Director John Wright, in collaboration with his actors, has produced an intelligent and effective version of the play that is a joy to watch. It does so largely by ducking the problems that the script presents in mounting it today, but that is infinitely preferable to tediously failing to solve them.
Until 26th June 2010
David Chadderton reviewed this production on tour in Macclesfield in 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton