May 23, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Doctor Faustus (Passion in Practice) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I was privileged this week to spend several days in rehearsals with Passion in Practice on their new staged reading of Doctor Faustus. Practice and Passion is a long-term rolling ensemble project devoted to the exploration of original pronunciation and, as I’m currently editing the play for a new anthology, the company kindly offered me the invaluable opportunity to watch them working. This does mean that I’m not in a position to offer a proper review of the final performance – quite aside from my bias towards the production, I don’t wish to pass off privileged insights from the rehearsal room as my own work – but I do want to record a few observations from what was shared in the Sam Wanamaker.

This Faustus, devised over a week of rehearsals in the Sam Wanamaker under the dramaturgical guidance of Ben Crystal, Rob Gander and Alasdair Hunter, and responding to the specific resonances of that space, was a thorough re-cutting of the play inspired by Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, and by actor Aslam Husain’s recollection of an anecdote about Nietzsche’s landlord going up to his lodger’s room one night to finally confront him about the constant wild parties in his room – and finding only the philosopher there, writing. Under the candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker’s chandeliers (set asymmetrically), Passion in Practice imagined a Faustus confined to his study and desk, a man unravelling alone in his room.

The text threw both the A- and B-text up in the air, stripping out almost the entirety of the comic scenes and reorganising what remained to tell a story recognisable as Faustus but pursuing an inward-looking experience. It began with Faustus at his desk writing the ‘Helen of Troy’ speech; it closed with Emma Pallant’s Mephistopheles reading the play’s Prologue to Faustus before closing the tiring house doors on him so that he could deliver his damnation speech. The clock started striking the final hour within the opening minutes of the production, and the recurring chimes (rendered increasingly disharmoniously by two violin players, whose names I apologetically forget) rendered the narrative circular rather than linear. Lines recurred in multiple contexts; characters and events were referenced before they were introduced; scenes shifted as quickly as Faustus’s distractable attention. The effect reminded me of Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, another play that takes a familiar text but repeats its words out of order to draw out new meanings.

What was left focused on Faustus as an individual in crisis. External persuasions and temptations, evoked by Alex Boxall and Jennifer Jackson as the fluid and shifting pairs of the Good/Bad Angels, Lucifer/Beelzebub and Valdes/Cornelius, were intercut with Faustus’s own ambitions and ponderings, complicating any literal reading of where impulses to evil come from.  Lines that occur at points of despair in the play were here sometimes spoken with gleeful anticipation, Faustus thrilling to the idea of communing with Hell, before returning later to the same words of damnation with more experience. Shorn of his travels (evoked within his study by Mephistopheles flapping a piece of paper attached to two feathers around the room to evoke his dragon-drawn chariot), Faustus had a psychic rather than narrative arc, moving from ebullience and hope to what seemed to me to be loneliness and terror.  Whether or not the other bodies in his room were to be understood as real or imaginary, the sense of loss as they gradually left him alone on stage was profound.

As one commenter in the post-show Q&A noted, the production struck a fine balance between humour and terror. Husain found several comic beats as Faustus, notably when writing the deed of gift for Mephistopheles and checking how best to address Lucifer. His ebullience provoked a great deal of laughter, as well as his naïve confidence in ‘demanding’ favours of his spirits. Pallant’s deadpan Mephistopheles found a different kind of laugh, such as in the tiny beat she allowed after Faustus’s instruction to her to go and change shape because of her ugliness. And the image towards the end of Faustus cowering under his desk with a basin on his head as a protective helmet found physical comedy even at a moment of terror.

But the claustrophobia of the production was also palpable, and this is something I’ll confess to experiencing more during rehearsals, with all electric lights turned out and a near-empty auditorium exaggerating the silence around the edges.  Mephistopheles’ generally impassive air meant that, when this broke, it doubled in power – such as the tears held back when comparing the beautiful courtesans to Lucifer before his fall. Lucifer sprawled in his chair with a foot on the desk, but burst into a roar of outrage when commanding Faustus not to speak of God. The Seven Deadly Sins became a very different kind of set-piece, with Mephistopheles whispering descriptions into Faustus’s ear and him repeating them out loud, experiencing the individual sins as impulses within himself. The games of the spirits all held a darker edge in becoming internal to Faustus, and the laughter of Beelzebub and Lucifer as Faustus demanded that he think on God I found chillingly mirthless.

There’s much more to be written about the dramaturgy of the piece, but what I appreciated was the opportunity to hear lines outside of their normal context and put into closer proximity with resonances elsewhere – for instance, Faustus’s instruction to Mephistopheles to be invisible in his home felt to me like a continuation of the same thought that saw him banish the devil for being ugly. The play also compressed and heightened the recurrent trepidation that Faustus expresses throughout Marlowe’s play. Here, the Good and Bad Angel were never far away, and scenes were frequently disrupted by Faustus’s sudden consciousness of his own imminent damnation. In such moments, and with Faustus’s books ever-present on the desk, this felt like a memory play, the flooding in of decisions and consequences at Faustus’s final moments of awareness.

The simple staging made the most of small movements – Jackson’s Bad Angel kicking over a pile of books, for instance, which remained scattered for the rest of the production. The desk became a locus for Faustus which shifted its status according to his state of mind, becoming either a shelter or a podium, a barrier or a throne. The devils also competed for ownership of this space. Mephistopheles became the ‘hot whore’ tempting Faustus away from seeking for a wife, sitting in the chair and leering forward suggestively, while Lucifer as already mentioned threw his feet up on the desk in a gesture of possessiveness. But the Old Man (Boxall) also took his place at the table, sitting face-to-face with Faustus and pleading with him for sanity.

The final set of resonances which consolidated meaning were the actual presences themselves. Mephistopheles appeared initially in the doorway of the tiring house to speak answers to Faustus’s questions as he looked for them in books; he initially reacting with fear and slamming the books shut. She reappeared when Faustus summoned her, but only on his fourth set of calls; and she sidled into the room behind him, leaving him to notice her only after he had climbed down and humbled himself. The Angels entered as Faustus read the Bible and stayed for the most part at the upstage corners, animating themselves when needing to act upon Faustus for good or evil. As they parted, they began the process of leaving Faustus alone in his room, the state in which he finally delivered his speech of damnation. At the close of it, he got up, went to the tiring house doors, pushed them open and stepped through, they then closing behind him. The sense of Faustus abandoning his study – either rejoining the world or leaving it – was effective, Faustus going (within the spatial logic of the production) out of his mind.

The aspect I haven’t addressed is the original pronunciation; partly because by the end of this process I had stopped noticing it. This ‘Fawstus’ was performed by an ensemble who have specialised for some years in OP, and as I’ve not seen the previous OP productions I don’t have much to compare it too. As an editor of the play, the most important resonances for me were those revealed in the rolling assonance of the lines, which carried a weight suited to the context. The rhyming of ‘wand’/‘hand’ and ‘east’/west’ was a useful insight, and the recurrent words exaggerated by the edit (including ‘Faustus’, ‘sin’, ‘damned’, ‘master’ and ‘never’) all felt more prominent in this version than I’ve ever heard in productions before. It’s testament to the company’s skill, however, that OP in this context simply felt like pronunciation.

Turning Faustus into a chamber piece, Passion in Practice found a dark – and darkly comic – exploration of self-analysis, panic and interiority. Faustus’s mutterings, echoed by the whispers of the spirits locked with him in his study, spoke to emptiness, fear and loss. It was a fascinating counter-point to the similarly focused RSC production, but perhaps more crucially demonstrated the mutual value of close textual work and creative editing in allowing a text to speak afresh. While I’ll be working more on my thoughts on the process in the run-up to editing the play, it was a pleasure to see the ensemble’s work at close hand.

Posted in Theatre review