May 13, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
Doctor Faustus (Lakeside/Nottingham New Theatre) @ Lakeside Arts Centre
Following last year’s Lysistrata, Nottingham New Theatre continues its collaboration with Lakeside Arts Centre on student productions with a professional spin. Martin Berry’s production, with an all-student cast and professional design and creative team, showcased the spectacular potential of the Lakeside space with a version of Marlowe’s Faustus that situated its protagonist at the centre of a world of pyrotechnics, debauchery, pounding music, smoke and blinding lights, a world that threatened to overwhelm its audience as much as its victim. It is to the production’s credit that the excellent student cast seemed entirely at home on the professional stage.
This stripped-down, ninety-minute version told a story of hedonism and despair. Tej Obano’s Faustus flicked through and discarded books before alighting on a dusty volume that, incongruously, brought him Mephistopheles in the shape of Ajay Stevenson, wearing denim over a chest tattooed with satanic symbols and smoking a cigarette. This Faustus was unconcerned with philosophy, theology or politics (mostly following the A-text, the episodes of Faustus’s tricks in particular remained isolated rather than connected by the Bruno storyline of the B-text) and instead streamlined the narrative to show Faustus choosing and revelling in excess.
Obano and Stevenson were the only male actors in the company, and the uncouth, rebellious Mephistopheles explicitly tempted Faustus into laddish excess. The early ‘show’ saw the all-female ensemble slink in, strip Faustus of his shirt and lick wine from his body and from each other; a sequence repeated in the shocking finale as they tore into his flesh with bloodied mouths. Lechery dominated the seven deadly sins, the actors speaking in chorus to indicate that lust was Faustus’s particular weakness. And even when not surrounded by women, the boys established an identity that saw them teasing, laughing, rolling together on the floor and revelling in the chaos they caused, particularly in the Vatican. Every time Faustus wavered in his self-destruction and implied he might seek redemption, Mephistopheles cranked up the hedonism to (almost literally) drown out Faustus’s thoughts of dissent.
The ensemble showed its strengths as a group through physical sequences that made the most of the campus setting. The seven deadly sins evoked a particularly seedy student nightclub, with Faustus moving from woman to woman, allowing them to leer over him before throwing his arms wide open in celebration of lechery. The Emperor’s courtiers showed sass as they mocked Faustus (and in turn mocked Benvolio, appearing with enormous antlers), and the assorted devils who repeatedly appeared to torment Faustus and others combined overt sexuality with bestial crawling and hissing. While it was a shame not to see the ensemble members more clearly delineated in the programme, the strength of the group as a group was in creating the only semi-human personalities that drew Faustus away from reason and towards his baser drives.
As with any path of self-destruction, Faustus’s time was clearly limited. From the moment he signed his soul away, the video screens above the stage began a countdown of seconds next to the legend ’24 years remaining’. At the end of each scene, the years noisily drained away, leading inexorably to the final ten-second countdown to Faustus’s damnation. Obstacles such as the Old Man (here identified as a woman) were quickly disposed of, yet this also wonderfully made clear how much of Faustus’s time was being wasted. The hysterical Vatican scene, featuring the fantastic Emma Kendall channelling Monty Python’s Pontius Pilate as a lisping and pot-bellied Pope, pulled out the stops with the slapstick and a full scale mockery of the church as Faustus and Mephistopheles tormented, teased and chased the caricatured cardinals. Yet this instance alone accounted for several years of the screen’s countdown. The recklessness with which this Faustus wasted his time – and the transparency of his accompanying spirit’s deception – only added to the helplessness of his story.
The comic aspect was fully realised in a wonderful handling of the subplot. Despite the bizarre conflation of Wagner with Rafe – leading to a bizarre inconsistency in which Kati Hall’s Rafe initially tormented Kendall’s Robin with magically conjured devils but then was later apparently introduced to magic for the first time by the same Robin – Kendall and Hall brought tremendous energy to these scenes, offering wonderful mockery of the main plot and improvising freely as they were cursed by Mephistopheles, hid the Vintner’s goblet in Rafe’s hair and generally highlighted the self-serving, indulgent and thoroughly trivial nature of their magic. It is rare these scenes are genuinely funny, but the no-holds-barred physical comedy was one of the production’s stronger aspects.
It was in some of the broader conceptual ideas that the production faltered a litle. As the audience arrived, their tickets were stamped by shouting prison guards with the symbol of a perverted cross, a symbol that adorned video screens and the backdrop of the stage. Faustus lay splayed and apparently tortured, a victim of a police state manned by the ensemble bearing weapons and patrolling the auditorium. This ‘state’ also voiced the Good Angel, ordering Faustus to adhere to God’s rule. The apparent attempt to say something about a militant religious state felt pointed but underdeveloped, never leading to a consistent argument. More tantalisingly, fragmented recorded speeches heard by Faustus as he read his books at the play’s start, and his shout of ‘Helen!’ as he ran towards the woman presented by Mephistopheles to be his ‘wife’, suggested a back story or latent trauma in Faustus to do with Helen, with whom he had a past. Helen appeared as the Bad Angel, a human and pleading voice who was deliberately warm next to the cold, pre-recorded announcements of the Good Angel. I wanted to see the fulfilment of this narrative, whose implications seemed to suggest a sympathy for the act of damnation: Faustus pining for a lost love whose memory saw him run headlong into damnation, in a way that also reacted against a controlling moral state.
However, although the wider conceptual frame was too sporadically evoked to offer a coherent reading, the individual pieces remained fascinating. The production’s highlight was Faustus’s encounter with Helen, accompanied by a simple, evocative piano notes. A pair of doors stood centrally upstage, and it was only at this point that Mephistopheles finally opened the doors, yielding Helen and allowing Faustus a quiet moment with his love, a moment that the devil cruelly parted him from with the slamming of the same doors. While this climactic moment really demanded something more to tie it to the wider implied narrative, the scene nonetheless assumed the iconic importance through its evocation of genuine emotion within Faustus’s pleasure-seeking arc. He knelt before her, leaned his head against her stomach and embraced her as if his life depended on it, rather than his damnation.
But these moments were all the more effective for their framing within the professional spectacle. Legs were pulled off; sparks flew; the silhouette of Lucifer waved her arms and spoke through a voicebox that duplicated and deepened her voice. As the clock ticked down its final seconds, the doors were thrown open and blinding floodlights cast Faustus and the mob of devils into near-obscurity, the tearing of his flesh all the more wonderfully evoked through the smoke and light by its fragmented presentation. Following this tremendous climax, Mephistopheles swaggered about the stage, kissing his team of dark angels and winking at the audience. The smugness of the victor was a final nod to the shared knowledge of devil and audience, who had waited for and counted down to Faustus’s fall while doing nothing to arrest it. While there may have been more ideas to finish exploring, this remained a bold and startling production, hysterically funny but rushing headlong to a violent end.