It is a delight to have Greenwich Theatre back as a producing house and especially when this sees the launch of an exciting new venture in partnership with Stage on Screen, a new company that will be producing DVDs of stage productions which aim to capture the essence of stage performance, not offer screen adaptations.
Revivals of Marlowe's famous play don't come often and though Londoners did get the opportunity to see it at the Young Vic with Jude Law not so long ago, what chance do most people get to see this or many other classics? A special welcome therefore to this production, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, which, via DVD, will make it widely available - though just how effectively it captures live performance we will have to wait and see: more of that on another occasion.
It has been very stylishly mounted by designer Neil Irish, costumed with a slightly modern touch. The semi-circle of Faustus' library forms a permanent set where, in a pentacle marked out by books, the learned doctor conjures up Mephistopheles and makes a pact with the Devil to trade his soul after twenty-four years service from Mephistopheles, producing for him whatever he desires.
Marlowe was accused of being an atheist but, while pandering to Elizabethan fascination with the occult and magic, he wraps things in a Christian message - though a Good Angel and a Bad Angel try to influence Faust we are always aware of Hell Fire waiting, even though Mephistopheles describes Hell as being the world around us.
It is a simple story that relies on that tension. It probably made use of all the magician's tricks of medieval and early modern theatre but this production, apart from the first appearance of Mephistopheles, eschews surprise for more stylized, often choreographed apparitions as it brings Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy back from the dead or uses trickery to make fun of the Pope to please Elizabethan Protestants.
This is not quite The Tragical History of Dr Faustus, if one accepts the definition of tragedy as being about the downfall of great men or women, for Gareth Kennerley's Faustus does not suggest the power and authority of a great scholar who, having mastered all other disciplines, now takes up metaphysics and necromancy. There is a petulance about the way he casts aside conventional learning, throwing books to the floor, but it would perhaps be difficult for a modern audience to identify dry academic with tragic hero, especially one so attracted to worldly and venal satisfaction.
Kennerley plays Faustus with great energy but often at the expense of vocal power to sustain the length of Marlowe's line - always a challenge to the actor - breaking its long cadences up into short phrases, so this is not Marlowe's poetry at full strength, though there is still fine language to relish and it is a performance that could grow richer as it plays in (there had been only two previews when I saw it).
Tim Treloar makes a solid Mephistopheles and there is a strong supporting company, especially Guy Burgess as Faustus's servant Wagner and as Lucifer, and Jonathan Battersby as the Bad Angel. The clowning scenes which lighten the sombre story are somewhat overplayed but Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore delight the audience with their mimetic transformations into ape and dog.
Marlowe's verse requires well-supported vocal technique and demands long passages held as a continuous thought to bring out their poetry and sense, offering both richness and clarity for a modern audience. They are heights that few modern actors even get the chance to attempt and if this production does not scale all the peaks it nevertheless succeeds in bringing this dramatic poem to life and kept an audience wrapt in their attention.
Until 16th October 2009 (in repertoire with "The School for Scandal")
Reviewer: Howard Loxton