4-30 Aug, 1945 (2045) @ C, Chambers Street
By Danielle Farrow
This adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s famous Doctor Faustus seems a study of death and madness. A chorus clad in white gowns (possibly lunatics) takes on various roles, including the Seven Deadly Sins, while Doctor Faustus conjures Mephistophilis to do his bidding in return for Lucifer gaining the doctor’s soul. While the setting fits a time of the late 1800s, as advertised, the promotional blurb is most confusing in mentioning Whitechapel, which never appears – in fact reference is repeatedly made to the original setting of Wertenberg. So do not expect any connection to that notorious London district and all its Ripper resonances which had intrigued this reviewer. (Such a discrepancy is not rare in the Fringe, where promotional material is prepared long before rehearsals actually commence.)
Instead of surprising external references, then, here is a highly concentrated and intense production focused on Faustus, his internal debates, and his dealings with Mephistophilis. Dramatic elements work well, such as ‘human puppetry’ and other choral roles, atmospheric lighting (including candles), and the effective use of occasional sound created by the players. There is also fine strength of purpose in Faustus’ playing, and the Mephistophilis actor has a strong stage presence. A farcical scene in the Vatican helps to infer that these are the imaginings of a madman, through its incongruity in style compared to the rest, and the seven Sins use the auditorium well, with impressive physicality.
However, these changes of pace and texture are rare. Mephistophilis is played on one level only – anything in Marlowe’s script that might be deeper appears as mere surface manipulation rather than the greatest lying of all: the kind based on truth. The intense focus of Faustus is to be admired, but more variation is needed. There is little journey for the character in the choices made for this production – we see a tormented soul from start to finish. The cuts and the acting make nonsense of Faustus’ claim that he had killed himself “Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.” One barely gains a glimpse of said ‘sweet pleasure’, for even where it might be had in the cut-down script, it was not embraced in the playing.
This heavy presentation, with little character discovery, fits the psychological concept of the production regarding Faustus’ sanity and is interesting intellectually, but winds up unsatisfying dramatically. Without the tricks and treats of Marlowe’s Faustus, without the doctor ever opening up to enjoyment of his bargain, there is little to tempt him, damaging character motivation and not exploring the dramatic contrasts possible. This is a production with meaning and it does provide mental stimulation, but pace is somewhat ponderous and this reviewer was left wanting more – more, which the talents of the group could provide, if they can articulate and project a little more clearly, layer the main performances more deeply, and enliven the production by embracing the contrast of joys and ills explored in Faustus’ debates.
So, while more can be achieved, this Doctor Faustus is an interestingly thought-out adaptation, worth seeing as a take on the themes of Faustus, and – if seen as an introduction to Marlowe’s play – it could well lead a viewer into discovering the delights of the original itself.