Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Directed by Charlotte Conquest for Creation Theatre Company at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford, 18 February 2011
Reviewed by Peter Malin
The notion of staging Dr Faustus in one of the world’s most iconic bookshops paid off handsomely in Charlotte Conquest’s production for Creation Theatre. In the deepest well of Blackwell’s underground Norrington Room – a cavernous and apparently ever-descending repository of book-bound knowledge – a raised wooden platform had been constructed, its planked surface encompassing grilles, translucent panels and trapdoors, and accessed by stairs at opposite corners. The audience was ranged on four sides, looking down on this evocative playing area, surrounded by banks of shelves appropriately crammed with the store’s massed stocks of philosophical, theological, educational and religious texts. In this dimly lit epistemological vault, it seemed we were peering into hell’s mouth, and the production’s economically realised atmospherics of sinister lighting and a doom-laden score created a creepy ambience so appropriate to the play that it seemed a pity to fracture it for an unnecessary interval.
It was quite a surprise to encounter a production of this textually unstable play that actually had faith in its early modern versions. What Creation presented was essentially an unadorned, fairly straight reading of the usual A- and B-text pick’n’mix, significantly cut, performed by a talented five-man ensemble. As so often happens, Faustus and Mephistopheles occupied a dual focal point around which the other actors spun their multiple roles. Costuming was eclectic, but not distractingly so, ranging from Faustus’s black, high-collared gown over his frilled white shirt, smartened up by a cravat for his travels, to the white-faced Mephistopheles’s dark suit with red-lined jacket, black shirt and tie, and contrasting smart, white-trimmed gym-shoes. Spirits were conjured out of stocking-masked faces and stretchy nylon body-bags, while naked torsos gave a sweaty sexuality to some of the more erotic choreography. Faustus’s magic was manufactured out of some brilliantly effective, no-nonsense stage conjuring, frequently centred on a wooden trunk from which sinister heads, arms and whole bodies materialised, and into which Faustus was slid headfirst by Lucifer at the end – rather drowning out, unfortunately, his final words. In fact, the special effects were so slick that they soon lost the shock value and sense of wonder – “how did they do that?” – initially provoked by the unexpected eruption of Valdes von Cornelius [sic] as a groping arm and mouthing head that burst through the pages of the magic book Faustus was consulting on top of the trunk. I don’t imagine any of these techniques were unavailable to Elizabethan stage practitioners, but they were no less impressive for that.
The comic episodes worked as they were surely meant to – simple morality-play fooling with rough edges and occasional topical references, as in the debate on the correct pronunciation of Faustus’s servant’s name, Wagner, echoing the recent differences of opinion over the X Factor contestant of the same name. The slapstick of the Pope scenes was given full value but not overdone, and the Horse-Courser’s ripping off of Faustus’s leg was managed with seamless grotesquerie. The Good and Bad Angels were both within and outside Faustus. Silver-masked shapes, they at first held up mirrors that reflected Faustus back at himself, speaking their lines in chorus with him, though disconcertingly not in sync. The production’s emphasis on books – constantly being consulted, quoted, rejected and discarded by all members of the ensemble – reaped dividends in the masque of the seven deadly sins, each of which was conjured from an opened text, “infecting” the whole company in its spreading influence, with Faustus himself emerging as Pride. The movement in this sequence was muscular and suggestive, and for once it did not distract attention from the lines, which were given full value. In the second half, books were largely absent; after all, Faustus has discovered there’s nothing else he can learn from them – and if there is, as he has already found out to his comic disgust and disappointment, it’s all in the one, tiny volume Mephistopheles has presented him with.
Others of the play’s famous “magic moments” were presented purely through light, sound and the power of the imagination. Mephistopheles’s first appearance, in a shape so horrible he is ordered to return in another guise, was a sudden, disturbing burst of stroboscopic lighting. Helen of Troy was conjured as a mere nothingness, lit from beneath through the translucent panels in the stage floor and sending those who saw her, including Faustus himself, into paroxysms of sexual frenzy. These and many other such moments gave the audience credit for being prepared to engage with the text directly, rather than requiring an animated graphic novel.
The play’s morality qualities came out more strongly than usual in the central relationship, as well as in the incidental dramatic accoutrements. This was partly because Gus Gallagher and Gwynfor Jones as Faustus and Mephistopheles did not, or could not, convey the psychological pain and tragic grandeur that many modern actors, perhaps mistakenly, have essayed in these roles. Gallagher, fresh-faced and trim-bearded, was a youthful Faustus, a convincing student with a streak of callow, arrogant immaturity. He didn’t play for easy sympathy, and was often happy to let us laugh at Faustus as well as with him, particularly in those lovely moments where Mephistopheles casually and comically jilts his expectations. It’s a pity that Gallagher was the weakest verse speaker in the company; at the start he tended to gabble and, although he gained in authority, many of his key speeches failed to exert their usual grip. Perhaps it’s a very modern expectation, but some sense of physical aging or increasing gravitas would have helped. What he did portray effectively was Faustus’s fleeting, schoolboy exhilaration at his experiences, increasingly countered by a sense of self-disgust at the pointless triviality of his accomplishments.
As Mephistopheles, Jones was much more assured. Witty, likeable, mischievous, exasperated, wracked with torment, frightening, vindictive, his was always a powerful, charismatic presence. In addition, he articulated the role’s verse and prose intelligently and expressively, incorporating some of the chorus speeches and the epilogue into his control of the action. The other three actors provided strong support in a range of contrasting characterisations, often in strikingly quick succession, as in Alex Scott Fairley’s rapid triple as Pope, Emperor and Horse-Courser. I also enjoyed Damian Davis’s transformations, from a stolid Wagner to a growling Beelzebub, taking in along the way an effete Cardinal with the unmistakable voice of Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? It would be unfair to omit Richard Kidd, notable, among other roles, as a terrifying Lucifer. Sometimes, these actors’ energetic versatility suggested there might even be an extra devil on stage…
Unlike other Creation shows, such as their Hamlet at the BMW car plant, this one cannot really be said to have been “site-specific”, since its flexible platform stage would have worked just as effectively in many other locations. There is no doubt, however, that the Blackwell’s setting provided a unique frisson for this production of Marlowe’s increasingly neglected masterpiece. One hopes the bookshop’s sales figures were not adversely affected by the bad press given to the acquisition of knowledge in the play.