June 24, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
Doctor Faustus (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]
Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/doctor-faustus.php
The Stage on Screen project is a simple idea; so simple, perhaps, that one wonders why the market hasn’t already been cornered. Four productions of early canonical plays (Volpone, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi and The School for Scandal) were specially commissioned, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and performed to live audiences at Greenwich Theatre. High-quality recordings of the productions were made during the live run and subsequently released on DVD with extensive bonus discs offering behind-the-scenes information, educational resources and contributor interviews. The project’s remit is educational; yet the productions stand alone as entertaining, professional versions of the plays. The care and attention taken to recording means that the plays suffer none of the editing problems that occasionally interrupt the live broadcast series such as NT Live, yet the audible presence of an audience retains the sense of liveness and coherence that keeps a production distinctly theatrical.
Faustus is a play particularly in need of a good screen version, as the Burton/Taylor Oxford University version still only available on Region 1 DVD. Freestone’s production is a stylish take on the play’s A-text, drawing on visual tropes of gothic literature to create an air of foreboding and, on occasion, out-and-out terror.
The production’s aesthetic evokes late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with Frankenstein the most obvious point of reference. Imagining Faustus as Victor Frankenstein works well; here, Gareth Kennerley’s Faustus is a nervy over-reacher, a young man whose own arrogance blinds him to the destruction he is bringing down on his own head. The circular stage is partially surrounded by wooden library shelves, full of books and charts, and a ladder allows access to an upper level where a telescope stands mounted. Faustus is the new man of science, rendering his laughing scorn of Mephistopholes’ ‘old wives’ tales’ all the more pointed; it is not that he does not believe in the creature he is speaking to, but rather is inclined to rational, ordered explanations. It is to science that he is drawn, as in Mephistopholes’ conjuration of an astrological map to explain the cosmos.
Shelley’s life and work pervade the production. Right from the start, Faustus is besieged by overconfident young men, throwing their books and ideas at him and drowning him in words. Valdes and Cornelius (Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore) evoke the ‘Young Romantics’, appearing with ruffled hair and louche manners, swaggering through Faustus’s study and pulling out his assorted bottles. The supernatural elements, meanwhile, move in a stiff, unskilled way, their zombified physicality exaggerated by white make-up and slow, shouted speech. The notable exception to this is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins – descending the ladder into his own study, robed figures grab at him and pull him under, writhing and squirming about the stage as they await their turn to claw at Faustus. As soon as Faustus scrambles back up the ladder, a simple hand movement from Guy Burgess’s Lucifer snaps the writhing bodies back into rigid order. Interestingly, there is a sense of visual repetition as the ‘invisible’ Faustus later moves among the monks and cardinals in the Pope’s presence, surrounded by bodies that he is unable to fully engage with.
The near-human is thrown into relief by the more overtly horrific throughout. As Faustus begins his conjuring, his companions retreat into the shadows and then flee altogether. Freestone allows the tension to build after each mention of Mephistopholes, the lights focused entirely in a tight circle on the magician with the rest of the stage in black. Eventually, after a long pause and Faustus’s own sigh of nervous relief, lightning flashes and thunder rolls as the silhouette of a horned monster appears on the top level. Faustus screams from his prostrate position on the floor before the apparition finally disappears. Later, Lucifer appears in the same position; rigid and dominant, the impression of monstrosity is maintained by Beelzebub’s realisation as a mask on the back of Lucifer’s own head.
In this context, of course, Tim Treloar’s Mephistopholes evokes Lewis in his monk costume. Treloar is an uncomfortable presence throughout the production. Where other recent actors of the role have played up the more ingratiating aspects of the character, Treloar is prickly throughout. Following the first monstrous appearance of the character, he enters hooded and barking lines at full volume from under his cowl. Faustus kneels before the furious spirit, cowed by his bile. Treloar moves throughout with rigidity and purpose, making measured turns and pointed, deliberate gestures. Once he has the bloody paper of Faustus’s contract he loosens up, but maintains the otherworldly attitude throughout, allowing him to move between the occasional moment of silliness (puppeteering a skull to reply to one of Faustus’s relentless questions) immediately to terrifying rage, as when asked to explain who made the world.
The film insists throughout that its audience pay attention to the controlling nature of the devils. Things that a stage audience may miss, such as Lucifer’s gestures of control, are here focused on in extreme close-up, foregrounding the framers of the action rather than their object. In particular, the first sensual parade of spirits offered to Faustus saw three spirits appear and circle him, treating him as a puppet and iconicising him as a Christ-figure. The fast jump-cutting, however, keeps returning to a close-up on Mephistopholes as he hinted at a smile, showing the spirit in control even at this early stage.
The comedy is less successful, although the recorded laughter suggests that it came across better in live performance. The subtler humour works best, as in the moment where Mephistopholes allows his ranting at the summons from Robin and Rafe to drop for a moment as he and the Vintner nod ‘Alright’ to each other; or in his forgetting to make himself invisible before the Horse-Course sees him, to which he mutters "Oh, for fu…". The scenes of the comedians feel tired and drawn out, however; particularly as Robin and Rafe turn slowly into an ape and dog in a Jekyll-and-Hyde style energetic transformation sequence, ending with the ape riding the dog and attempting to hump him. The jokes played on the Pope are simply done, but their tiredness here feels deliberate, emphasising the pettiness of the tricks played by the smug, invisible Faustus.
The quieter battle between Joanna Christie’s young, scantily-clad Evil Angel and Jonathan Battersby’s slow-moving Good Angel pervades the production, including in one interpolated scene where the Evil Angel smilingly empties a box of sand from the raised space into Faustus’s study; the fact that this is a battle against time is always clear. The apparent shared identity of the two with, respectively, Helen of Troy and the Old Man helps keep the battle polarised; Faustus is pulled continually between two forces. Kennerley is a nervous, self-doubting figure throughout, attempting to persuade himself as much as the audience of his confidence in his own control. His moments of terror are quickly trampled down by the myriad devils, and it is only in the play’s closing moments that he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Mephistopholes grabs Faustus by the face, promising him that all shall be done that can be done, and Faustus’s attraction to Helen sees the two of them kiss repeatedly as the Good Angel/Old Man enters and looks on; the battle, in this image, is won.
A striking follow-up scene sees the Old Man attacked and killed by jumping spirits that slash him mercilessly until he falls into a lonely spotlight. Yet the lights shift to a stream coming in from the upstage door, and the music changes from an eerie whistle to choral chanting, as the Old Man gets to his feet and walks into the light. As the positions polarise, the stage is set for the final scene. An isolated Faustus begins tearing apart his study, sobbing and throwing books and papers to the floor. Once more, the production returns to the image of the disillusioned young scientist, drinking hard and babbling about the Monster coming for him. Faustus’s pleas that he has been a student here for many years sound poignant coming from a younger man, casting his actions as those of reckless youth rather than informed evil. Yet Mephistopholes’ final vaunts are not just those of victory over an impressionable mind, but also of a victory against God; he becomes to weep, and conquers his tears by shaking a fist at the Heaven that he knows he will never see again. Faustus’s end pleasingly mirrors the initial dance of the spirits that entertained Faustus; the same spirits emerge and dance around him, dragging him to the upstage door as Lucifer appears above. In a final moment of pause, Faustus reaches out for Mephistopholes before being pulled out offstage, to Mephistopholes’ wide-eyed expression of something not quite clear – shock? Surprise? Horror? Whichever it is, the sense is one of unfitness; this damnation is neither easy nor straightforward.
One of the strongest moments, however, comes very early on, as the two masters of the university shiver in the cold outside Faustus’s study and hear, from Wagner, how Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. The two react with shock, and whisper in fear to one another. In this short sequence, Freestone captures something of the wider society within which Faustus operates; the terror of a world threatened by the horrors he is creating. Returning to Frankenstein, this Faustus warns of the dangers of over-reaching, of personal arrogance in the thirst for knowledge. The evocation of the 19th century battles between science and faith, religious fervour and rationalism, creates a meaningful context for the battle over an arrogant soul.
The education pack I was sent for review contains three discs. One, the ‘Mastershot’ DVD, shows the entire production from a fixed, wide shot camera angle, which isn’t a great deal of fun to watch but which I can see value in for teaching purposes. The other disc includes oddly fuzzy direct-to-camera interviews with cast and creatives. Freestone’s own contains rather too much personal anecdote considering the length (does it really matter how she became a director?) but she makes some useful comments about the search for textual evidence and her desire to make the play about the conflict between Man and Devil, rather than Man and Man (explaining something of Treloar’s performance). Production and Costume Designer Neil Irish offers some practical notes on how to recycle materials, but is so brief as to be fairly unhelpful. Wayne Dowdeswell offers some of the best material as the lighting designer, walking through his process and giving some fantastic notes on how set and light combine to create thematic effects. This interview also includes lighting plots and diagrams, making it a genuinely exciting resource, especially for practical theatre courses.
The most impressive aspect, in terms of value, is a half hour interview with cast members, which offer personal insights into verse speaking and approaches to character. These are interesting and yield some individual points of interest, but a little basic overall for the level at which I teach; more about what it’s like to be an actor then on the specifics of the production. I can’t help but feel that some academic insight would have been a really invaluable addition to this disc, or perhaps an ‘outside’ perspective on what this production brings to the play’s performance history.
The main value of the package is all in the first disc, and given the step up in pricing for the education packs (+£10 RRP, +£30 on Amazon), I’d only recommend the basic DVD for most – it’s the edited film that is most useful.