Brighton Fringe 2012
… So we’re going to take a four-hundred year old play about selling our soul to the Devil, by a gay Elizabethan playwright who was also a spy, and we’ll put it on in a modern office block that’s turned itself into a spiritual centre offering to – ’empower us through knowledge, and put us in the driver’s seat of our brain’. There are about forty-five different characters (give or take a few devils), and most of them end up having some kind of sex with each other – usually orgiastic or deviant. And there are lots and lots and lots of books… Yeah – that should work for the Brighton Fringe …
That must have been the pitch, and ‘Dr Faustus The Imaginarium’ delivers the goods – in spades.
The Four of Spades, as it happens… When the audience first assembled, we were given a demonstration of ‘Three card Monte’ (or ‘Find the Lady’) by a con-man cardsharper who dazzled us with sleight-of-hand and ended up with three cards, each one the Four of Spades. It set the tone perfectly – sleazy, slick, leaving us not trusting our senses – for what followed.
The Happy Cell office block is an inspired choice of venue. The meeting rooms are long and narrow rather than square, and the audience of about 35 or so were seated down the long walls on both sides, leaving an acting space almost like a catwalk down the middle. It meant that we were never more than a few feet from the performers. The ceilings are quite low too, which gives a slight feeling of oppressiveness and also makes the characters look larger. The second half was staged in a basement room, with several entrances and a slight, but distinct, echo. The rooms are not dressed in any way, just left with the pale walls and meeting-room seats. Lights – splashing red over Mephistopheles or a producing a white backlight for Lucifer – were simply hung off stands. Music was by live instruments – guitar, percussion – played from a corner of the room. It was used to great effect to create mood and heighten tension.
The pace of the production was set right at the start when a wall of books, piled high at one end of the room, collapsed with a sudden shock revealing – Dr Faustus. He, of course, is the scholar who is dissatisfied with the study of logic, medicine, law and divinity. He wants more knowledge than conventional learning can give him, and he begins to dabble in the occult. Pretty soon he raises two Angels – a Good Angel in flowing white with bare feet and loose hair, and a Bad Angel. The Bad Angel was all in black, tight skirt and enormously high boots and Jeeeeeeeezus was she tall… Honour Mission is a big woman, six foot two in stockinged feet (which I’m trying to not even THINK about…) and her severe black hair seemed to brush the ceiling. She gave me goosebumps as she walked past. (Terrifying, and only a few feet away, remember).
I hope there’s a lot of headroom in Hell, because they need it… Mephistopheles, when he appears, is even taller. Gordon Winter is a really big man, and dressed in a very good suit that only a gangster (or a banker – same difference …) could afford, he brought to mind the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – "Please allow me to introduce myself – I’m a man of wealth and taste …". With his sleek hair and fixed smile he also reminded me of Razors, Bob Hoskins’ minder in ‘The Long Good Friday’. Evil, with loads of style. Likewise the five female devils who accompany him. Pinstriped suits, tight skirts, clipboards and mobile phones, these are devils with attitude, and they’re HOT.
When I saw the title of this production – Dr Faustus The Imaginarium – I had misgivings about what it would be like. So often a company will take a classic text and bugger it around ( Sorry – ‘interpret it’ ) so that the meaning is changed out of all recognition. Also, I’ve been to ‘site-specific’ shows (some of them award winners) where the experience was meant to be ‘immersive’ and the audience have to piece the story together from scattered impressions. So it was a wonderful relief to realise that Tanglehead were going to do the play just as Christopher Marlowe wrote it. Scenes in proper sequence, virtually word for word with the ‘A’ version of the play (there’s a later ‘B’ version), and with all the Elizabethan comic scatological bits left in.
(Disclaimer – Rant, if you’d prefer.) – I’m a great believer that the business of theatre is to tell the story that the author has written. Theatre makes the text come alive, but the story is key. This production has haunting music, emotive lighting, amazing costumes and makeup, completely over-the-top performances and it’s very funny. But – and most importantly – it also gives us the story, the tragedy, the moral of Dr Faustus.It makes us think about the play.
(Second Disclaimer.) – I’m a recent convert to Marlowe, after I read the wonderful book about him – ‘A Dead Man in Deptford’ – by Anthony Burgess. Read it if you get the chance. His life was complicated, immoral, gamey, irreverent and hugely creative – just like this production.
Sixteen actors giving us forty-five characters involves an awful lot of quick changes. I can’t mention the whole cast by name, though all were excellent. Trevor Scales (another big man, or maybe those ceilings are lower than they appear) gave us the Emperor Charles V in a blue silk dressing gown, a very camp Cardinal of Lorraine, and the Hot Whore Wife from Hell (hairy arms and torn stockings – don’t ask…). Miranda Morris came on as Robin the clown, in one of the comic interludes, then a black-gowned Scholar, and all in yellow, including a plastic yellow wig, as Lechery, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Actually she was one of two Lecheries, like there were two Prides, so there were eventually NINE Deadly Sins on the central ’catwalk’ – all we were missing was Anna Wintour in the front row… We never knew what would appear next, and I have a vivid memory of an audience member opposite, a woman probably in her late twenties, eyes wide in amazement at something unexpected, holding her hands to her mouth like a girl of six or seven. She wasn’t the only one.
Faustus himself was played by two – Jason Kennedy as the young scholar, crew-cut, thin and intense as he prepares to renounce normal morality and sell his soul, and in the second half by Mike Rawlings as the older Faustus, round faced and bald in a good quality check suit, obviously enjoying his life and his powers. One of the things this production brought home to me was just how banal and limited Faustus’ desires finally were. With Mephistopheles at his beck and call, able literally to – "Join the hills that bind the Afric shore / and make that land continent to Spain / and both contributory to my crown" – he spends his time fetching grapes for Duchesses and raising the shade of Alexander the Great for the Emperor to see. Parlour tricks for those in power. When he gets to Rome, he does the sights like a package tourist and then causes havoc at a Papal banquet. Don’t seem activities worth paying for with one’s soul… Elizabethan audiences were very different, of course. For us, ‘Rome’ means an EasyJet flight – for them, it was a long difficult pilgrimage made by very few. And in Marlowe’s time, poking fun at the Catholic Pope would have gone down very well with his Protestant public. As I said above, this production makes us think deeply about the play.
I looked up ‘Imaginarium’ and it’s defined as – ‘a place devoted to the imagination….to stimulating and cultivating imagination towards scientific, artistic, recreational and spiritual ends’. The right word for this production, then, and why it deserves five stars.