Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is first recorded as being performed in 1594. By that time it was already a very old German legend, with a tendency to shape shift, which Marlowe recognised as a perfect vehicle for his talents as an atheist (a dangerous and unusual position to take in Elizabethan times) who was never afraid of danger or controversy. It has been making waves ever since, as it taps into something deep and disturbing in human nature, something which is both fascinating and terrifying. It is a fearless piece of drama, written at a time when religious belief and violence were at the heart of everyday life, by someone who knew what it was like to live on the edge, and it tackles mortality and morality head on. It was strong meat, bitterly attacked at the time, and well over 400 years later it is still a disturbing play to watch. For an Elizabethan audience hell fire and evil were a reality, almost universally feared and believed, and the idea of someone who is learned and respected willingly giving up their eternal salvation, promising their soul to the devil and accepting eternal damnation for short term earthly power and gain was a very resonant and powerful one. It was not an abstract idea for them, it was a present reality which they lived with and wondered over in an uncertain and dangerous world. You could die for your beliefs, or your lack of them, all too easily. Figures like John Dee, whose many studies included the occult and alchemy, were at the heart of the establishment, consulted and revered. The fact that a man could defy God and quite literally say to hell with the consequences for their own personal gain would have carried an enormous emotional charge and a contemporary relevance. There is a strong morality play element to Doctor Faustus as these consequences play out and we see his downfall. Marlowe has made him into a more sympathetic character, nobler at the outset than the Faust of the original legend and added a good and bad angel to emphasise his dilemma and the danger he is running throughout the play so that we can empathise with him and feel his fear. It is a difficult play to get right for modern eyes, as satirical references have been lost and some of the humour is strange to us. There has been rewriting along the way, right from it’s earliest days and volumes of scholarly argument written. It’s a real challenge to make the central part of it work.
The production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse ( a co-production with Glasgow Citizens) takes a strong line as it attempts to solve these difficulties and follows it through meticulously, with two acts rewritten by Colin Teevan, who gets a dual writer’s credit with Marlowe himself. Doctor Faustus becomes a modern day celebrity magician and falls prey to the worst of celebrity culture, in thrall to his female assistant Mephistopheles. It works well, with the cast sitting backstage behind their dressing room mirrors watching the action, ready for when their time comes to be part of it. From the moment they set their alarm clocks there is going to be no escape for him and they are all a part of his fate. Dominic Hill has directed a very tight show and the whole cast are well drilled and on their mettle the whole time, many of them playing a number of parts. There are many nice small touches. I enjoyed the way Faustus’ bride leapt into action at short notice for example- one of a series of nice cameos from Alasdair Hankinson- and there is a clever use of magical tricks throughout. The costumes are terrific and the seedy backstage setting by designer Colin Richmond works well. The humour is well judged and doesn’t detract from the inevitable kick in the teeth which the play delivers at the end. There are some fine performances among the supporting cast. Oliver Wilson is outstanding as the bad angel, full of charisma and energy, and I liked the contrast with Ann Louise Ross’ good angel, a prim, churchgoing pillar of respectability with a hint of toughness as she watches the downfall of Faustus, knitting like a spectator at the guillotine. She tries to save him but she is old enough and wise enough to know beyond doubt what is coming and she isn’t going to waste tears over it. Leah Brotherhead is very moving as Wagner, the only character in the production who is truly full of warmth and heart.
The play stands or falls on the two central performances, that of Kevin Trainor as Faustus and Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles and both are played with real commitment. Siobhan Redmond has great dignity on stage as Mephistopheles and weaves a sense of danger and understated evil around herself to great effect. She looks amazing and moves beautifully, speaking the verse with great clarity and it is a very powerful performance indeed. Kevin Trainor as Faustus delivers what is asked of him with enormous commitment and energy. I admired his performance but I felt that to give me the Faustus that I really wanted to see he would have needed a different production. I’m not sure that I was shown a learned and dignified man, setting him in a shallow celebrity culture didn’t really allow that, and you need to feel the loss of a potentially great spirit for the play to work fully. That, along with the fact that the modern setting diluted the vice like grip of fifteenth century culture and belief which gives the play its real kick, were the major drawbacks of the rewriting and resetting of the play for me.
This is a fascinating production which does exactly what it sets out to do with great clarity and it made me think about the play in a fresh way- you can’t ask for a lot more than that really. Plays of this period will always survive whatever you throw at them so long as it is done with intelligence and integrity and there is always something new to find in them.