October 03, 2010

Doctor Faustus @ Manchester Royal Exchange

Writing about web page http://www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk/event.aspx?id=331

Sitting in the gods at Manchester Royal Exchange provided the perfect perspective for a review of Marlowe’s Faustus. The circular in-the-round stage, engraved with constellations and symbols, became a giant magic circle within which the play’s action took place; and it was to us, gazing from above, that Patrick O’Kane turned as he screamed his defiance at Heaven. For no play, perhaps, is a God’s-eye-view so appropriate for the “judging” figure.

Toby Frow’s production was, considering the enclosed space, enormous. A cast of thirty-five (including twenty-three local drama students making up the ensemble of demons and revellers) allowed the stage to be flooded in scenes of grand spectacle; while the employment of a “Magic Consultant” (Darren Lang) was justified in the volume of stage illusion, from cups that walked along tables to an impressively-quick head-trick, from grapes that magically appeared in an empty pot to the flames that burst from Lucifer’s hands, to a surprisingly effective moment where the clowns suddenly found their mouths sewn shut. The use of the B-Text with only a couple of omissions (the A-text ending was used, and the final “horning” of Benvolio and his conspirators was skipped for reasons discussed below) allowed the potential for spectacle to be maximised.

The presence of the diabolic was evoked with great gusto. The first appearance of Mephistopholes, following the eerie blowing-out of candles, was as an enormous black head that descended from the ceiling in a cacophony of noise. Following its retreat, an equally impressive entrance was made by Ian Redford as the human incarnation, a priest with suitcase (evoking for me The Exorcist, fittingly), appearing in silhouette as a door flew open. Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer and Gavin Marshall’s Beelzebub descended on ropes and wires from the ceiling; Christie’s height rendering her a particularly imposing presence as she cackled at Faustus and lounged on his desk. She also provided the voice of the Bad Angel while David Hobbs doubled the Old Man and Good Angel; allowing for a wonderful sequence in the final scene where the two Angels, having been only heard previously, finally met onstage in the persons of Lucifer and the saintly old man, disputing over Faustus’s desk.

The spectacle continued throughout the shows of the evil spirits. Mephistopholes conjured a band of gyrating lepers to surround Faustus and dress him in robes following the making of the bargain; Faustus’s “Wife” appeared as a zombie who threw herself on the magician; and the Seven Deadly Sins were a group of oversized carved heads, marching on stunted legs and leering at Faustus while Lucifer laughed hysterically. At times the overly sexual physicality of the demons spoke too obviously of drama school influence (particularly the simulated buggery that took place around Faustus for no hugely discernable reason), and puerile humour was found in making the Pope masturbate an enormous German sausage, to Faustus’s giggling glee; but the relentless energy was rarely less than entertaining.

At the centre of this melee was O’Kane’s Faustus, carrying the weight of the show. In a commanding performance, O’Kane fought hard to keep his role central, a battle (deliberately?) acknowledged as he shouted to be heard over the debauched revellers of Vanholt, silencing them. O’Kane’s only real weakness came in his attempts to hold together the sillier scenes of trickery – his giggling, idiotic and skipping behaviour during the baiting of the Pope was justified but extremely tedious, leaving the production flailing for coherence. This was a momentary blip, however, in a solid and riveting arc.

Drawling in his arrogance, Faustus’s glib dismissal of Mephistopholes’s experience of hell was an early indicator of the character’s lack of perspective, balanced powerfully by Redford’s calm. In the first half, Faustus revelled in his power, particularly in the aforementioned Vatican silliness. As the production moved on, however, Faustus’s growing frustration at those around him, and sense of inevitability about his own fate, began to manifest themselves. The early scenes of backsliding in his own apartment saw him gibber and vacillate, alternately pleading with Mephistopholes and screaming after him; and, in one hugely significant gesture, he fell for comfort around the devil’s neck. An amazing (late) climax to the first half perfectly captured the growing darkness of Faustus’s mood. Facing a quivering group of ambushers, Faustus called to him the pack of leprous devils, who he then unleashed. As Faustus stood central, bathed in red light with hands raised and eyes closed, the devils beat and chased the conspirators viciously about the stage, eventually bringing them together in a shaking heap at Faustus’s feet while the devils, now dogs, knelt in a wider circle baying at them. To a thunderous crescendo of drumming, Lucifer and Beelzebub descended from the ceiling and hovered over the chaos, Lucifer with flames rising from her palms and Beelzebub hanging one of the plotters; and Faustus pulled Benvolio to his feet, held two swords against his neck, paused in a moment’s contemplation and then slit his enemy’s throat. As the interval fell, we saw a Faustus losing control of his own power.

Throughout the second half, Faustus’s irritability grew, particularly in Vanholt as he sullenly “performed” for the masked and lascivious court. Although he struggled to be taken seriously, the sewing of the clowns’ mouths marked a turning point as the revellers fell into a hushed silence, before scattering before the angered magician. Stephen Hudson as Wagner, who spoke the Choruses, became increasingly central in the role of dismayed servant, commenting sadly on his master’s downfall and watching Faustus with ever more concern and fear. As O’Kane retreated more into his own head, it was Helen of Troy who drew him finally to some sort of emotional tipping point. Helen (Coral Messam) was a lifesize wooden puppet, moving jerkily across the stage, but showing an intuitive empathy for her conjuror. She lay lifeless on the floor following her first show, and was pointed at by the Old Man as an epitome of Faustus’s evil. As Faustus was left alone, though, she raised her head and moved tenderly towards him, mirroring his gestures as if to suggest a shared role – they were, after all, now both little more than Lucifer’s puppets. Faustus pleaded for Mephistopholes to leave her; and he embraced her tenderly.

The clownish subplot was somewhat tedious. Rory Murphy’s Irish Robin and Gavin Marshall’s intentionally unintelligible Scottish Dick drew laughs from lively performances, and the mimicry of Faustus’s conjuring (particularly as Robin produced a wand against Jonathan Tafler’s Innkeeper) offered an attempt at parody which, however, didn’t lead anywhere other than easy and inefficient comedy. The episode of Dyfrig Morris’s Welsh horse-courser (the variety of comic regional stereotypes should at least be applauded for completeness, if not for originality) was far more successful – brief, to the point and allowing O’Kane the opportunity to render his comic revenges ever more tiresome to himself; the Courser was a momentary distraction this close to his death.

The final scene, extremely bravely considering the emphasis on spectacle throughout, retreated from style to focus on Faustus. With the scholars and Wagner gone, Faustus was incrementally isolated. Lucifer and Mephistopholes sat together on Faustus’s desk, covered from the start with necromantic books and a skull, and laughed at his grievances. Eventually, Lucifer gestured towards the floor, which slid back to reveal a pit of earth and a coffin, into which Faustus gazed as if into Hell. Left alone to contemplate his fate for his final hour, Faustus staggered around the pit, terrified by it but unable to approach it. He grasped at a ladder and stood on his desk, striving physically and mentally towards heaven, but the magnetic effect of his own empty coffin continued to dominate his gaze. Finally, as the final strokes of twelve sounded, he screamed “I’ll burn my books.” Yet, despite the expectations of an all-out finale, he was greeted by silence. A long pause was followed by a laugh of semi-relief as Faustus looked about him, but then he was once more drawn back to the coffin. In a long and painfully slow sequence, quivering and occasionally letting out a sob, Faustus stepped into the pit and from there into his coffin. As he lay his head down, he closed his eyes and whimpered “Mephistopholes”, as the floor closed again over his head, a whispered lament and final accusation in one that suggested an overwhelming sensation of disappointment, interestingly.

Wagner’s final Chorus acted as a lament for his father, with a candle placed in the centre of the magic circle – above the body – and blown out to conclude the play. This quiet conclusion was far more effective than the spectacle of the rest of the play, precisely because of the contrast it formed, and it served to re-focus attention on the real interest of Faustus, the journey of its protagonist. While the production could have done with being somewhat shorter (an A-text version might have allowed for similar pyrotechnical displays without dragging out past its welcome), O’Kane’s central performance succeeded in drawing the disparate elements together. Ultimately, the play became a servant’s lament for a master’s needless fall, and a man’s battle with his own conscience; a story that, deservedly, ended with a whimper rather than a bang.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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