Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Dr Faustus is a University theatre company favourite, but difficult to do well. Though flawed in its treatment of the verse, this entertaining and imaginative circus-inspired production features a witty female ring-master Mephistopheles, a sensitive musical score and some good physical ensemble work.
University theatre companies thrive on productions of Christopher Marlowe’s works. Marlowe was the greatest University wit of all, and had no challenger for the title of England’s greatest playwright until his early demise, stabbed through the eye with his own knife at the age of 29, left the field clear for his almost exact contemporary, the uneducated William Shakespeare, to seize the crown.
There are on the Fringe this year two University productions of Marlowe’s masterpiece, Dr Faustus, which is about an average number. However, it is not an easy play to do well, partly because the surviving script seems to be rather mangled, and partly because it not only requires two exceptional performances in its central roles – Faustus and Mephistopheles – but it also has a number of set-pieces, such as the parade of the seven deadly sins, which demand imaginative staging.
It can be an awfully worthy plod, but Offshoots (in Association With Lancaster University Theatre Group) deliver a brisk entertaining and inventive production, which though not entirely successful, delivers just enough to be well worth a visit, and promises much in the future from its director and star, Stacey Norris.
While not the most original of concepts, the idea of Mephistopheles as circus ring-master fits Marlowe’s play very well. Casting herself in the normally masculine role, Stacey Norris displays a playful wit as both performer and director, but sadly the potential for a sexual element to the chemistry between her and the eponymous male lead is not fully explored. This is possibly because Simon Lewis is not very convincing in the role of Dr Faustus, the mercurial genius who is damned through his over-reaching.
Proper circus skills take many years to acquire and perfect, so perhaps it was not surprising that this University group were sometimes lacking in finesse in their tumblings. A more experienced director would have reduced the time-wasting antics of the good and bad angels and thus left more time for more of Marlowe’s mighty lines, which were here savagely cut and often spoken with a lack of fluency which made them hard to follow.
I missed the appearances of Helen and Alexander and the strawberries in mid-winter, but I didn’t really mind the scholars being cut. I was, however, well peeved to hear one of the most famous monosyllabic lines in the language misquoted, but when one of the most famous actors appearing at this year’s Fringe can put "Creeps in this petty pace day by day" into the mouth of MacBeth, I suppose we can excuse a novice for reordering "Ah, Faustus, Now hast thou but one bare hour to live." Overall the cutting did help to speed up the play, but the ending, when it came was rather too abrupt.
But successes there were too both in performances and in direction. Louise Turner provided a sensitive guitar background to many scenes and also, amid a strong ensemble, stood out as an intense staring Lucifer, while among the seven deadly sins, all nicely realised, Bob Peters showed superb comic timing as a show-stopping Sloth. The mass writhing of the damned as Faustus’s first spell reaches a climax was particularly effective, and the chalking of the terms of the contract on the stage floor earned a triple tick in my notebook, even if it did leave chalk marks on costumes later on.
So… a flawed production, but one which manages to entertain and provides an early glimpse at more than one promising future career.