A number of large, heavy-looking tables on a stage that is otherwise empty apart from some high trellis panels and some piles of books provide the setting for this modern-dress production of Marlowe's tragedy. In a gloom cut through by a couple of shafts of light, shadowy figures appear as the audience itself assembles. In raincoats and trilbies they hover, waiting. Spies? Reminding us that Marlowe is thought to have worked for Walsingham as a secret agent? Pimps? Certainly there is a feeling of the criminal underworld, not the halls of learning of Faustus' Wertenberg, but this changes as, in a carefully choreographed reorganisation of the furniture, it turns into a raised platform in a frame, lacking furniture but piled with books and warmly lit, that has an echo of those quatrocento paintings of the study of St Jerome to whose bible Faustus himself soon refers.
David Crisp's set and Rachel Francis's lighting make an important contribution to this production - too much perhaps, despite their effectiveness and simplicity. They are beautifully done, but often no physical change is needed and they slow things down. Encouraged by the pulsing music that accompanies them, I soon found myself counting out the seconds before the play moved on.
Faustus is not an easy play for a modern director. The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for earthly power is now more a movie cliché rather than a vital moral lesson. Our largely secular world does not have the same sense of salvation and damnation nor do many modern actors have much experience of delivering text as demanding as Marlowe's verse which needs lung power and vocal ability.
Director Joss Bennathan ensures that we never forget the battle for Faustus' soul by keeping the twitching shadowy shapes of the forces of darkness present around or under the tables-cum-rostra through almost all the scenes. Good Angels are present too but they look identical to the Bad and their pleas and their warnings become less easy to register.
As Faustus himself Babou Ceeseay has a strong stage presence and a good voice, though sometimes slightly muffled in its articulation. It is a very creditable performance but he chops too much of the text into short phrases, placing emphasis on frequent individual words so that, although intelligently phrased, thought is not carried through the sometimes considerable sentences and there is little sense of the power of the verse.
The Mephistopheles of Simon Rivers is first seen naked to the waist and the rest wreathed in smoke then, instead of donning the friar's garb that Faust requests, he rapidly reappears in black suit and dog-collar looking like the local vicar or a college chaplain, a much more appropriate disguise for a modern audience. The intention perhaps is to play him insidiously softly but he seems too lightweight against this Faustus: there is too little sense of it being him who is in control and this is not helped by his magical presentations, though carefully thought out (the beauteous Helen, for instance, is presented as a succession of Hollywood star portraits) as rather lacking in theatrical legerdemain.
It has always intrigued me that, despite his dreams of bridging oceans and being Emperor of the world, Faust never actually ends up as anything more important than a courtier on the international circuit (neatly presented in a succession of holiday slides of him with Mephistopheles in the cities he mentions). Of course, he has his fun and games at the Pope's and the Vatican's expense, though this hardly comes over as the parody of the papacy that was perhaps originally intended to please the English Church, and the Latin mumbo-jumbo of the spells is neither made frightening nor used to send up the idea of the occult, though there is a nice touch in that when Faustus, in an early speech, translates some of the Latin he reads, the English is given to his manservant Wagner (Kieron Singh).
Wagner has his own attempt at calling up devils which leads into a comic scene with a couple of clown characters. It is difficult to get the clown scenes of Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays to work for a modern audience and it is a mistake, as is sometimes the case here, to try too hard to be funny, unless you are very skilled at it, though of course they get their laughs when fools are turned into animals and do their animals impersonations.
The leading players are themselves all young and they are supported by other actors at the beginning of their careers or still students at Newham's 6th Form College. Clearly they have done a lot of work on movement and it shows to good effect and they speak well when the opening chorus is divided among the ensemble but they will need a lot more experience before they will really be able to cope with Marlowe's 'mighty line,' but this is a production that seems to connect with the largely young and supportive audience that I saw it with.
Until 6th February 2010