FringeReview UK 2018
Paulette Randall directs Doctor Faustus. Joseph Roberts’ score directed by Phil Hopkins floats period viol consort melodies on a bed of hallucinatory noises from another sphere Libby Watson’s feast of early modern rich-not-gaudy fits. In Paradigmz’s choreography their burlesque is scaled to the small stage. Fight directors Rachel brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown enact their habitual economy of scale. Till February 2nd.
The Wanamaker is wintering in magic. After the most whisperingly demonic Macbeth ever – which possessed the whole of the Wanamaker like a wooden eggshell, Paulette Randall’s Doctor Faustus invokes similar rappings and claims the principal parts for women.
Marlowe’s comical darkness only gradually chills and the decision to enact the longer ‘B’ text of 1616 is almost as rare as a woman Faustus, here Jocelyn Jee-Esien in commanding form. It’s thus both innovative and like other Wanamaker productions incredibly detailed. Randall unusually confronts the baggy monster entire; not one trimmed to fit a concept.
There’s much to bind it. Joseph Roberts’ score directed by Phil Hopkins floats period viol consort melodies on a bed of hallucinatory noises from another sphere, stretched over the apparent antics, just to remind us. It’s a clever way of uniting the early modern with a modern take on the spectral.
Randall’s Faust straddles modern casting with period dramaturgy. So quite apart from allowing the pratfalls of Robin and Dick, or nasty plots of arrant courtier Benvolio and his crew full rein, there’s the challenge of sashaying between this and the terror of soul-selling and damnation. It’s straight here and works as a picaresque full circle.
We open with books piled like hypercausts: it’s the only time bar the Pope’s rich feast where there’s scenery. After much converse with necromancers Sarah Amankwah’s superbly-voiced Valdes (she’s also fine in two small roles) and John Leader’s querulous Cornelius, Jee-Esien’s ready for Pauline McLynn’s Mephistopheles. There’s no use of trap doors as in the original, no stage machinery, just use of doors here and elsewhere. Only good and bad angels, and the truculent, new-horned Benvolio, consort on the balcony. Though we get fireworks, it’s sparing. Randall opts for quiet chill and loud clothing.
Jee-Esien’s Faust is self-possessed, a forward wit whose imperiousness is like a bored emperor, ready for new tricks. There’s less inner angst, still less petulance, more a final impatience. McLynn’s evil genius is both straight-talking when ‘this is hell, nor are we out of it’ demands a kind of truth; and both seductively-voiced ’my Faust’ and suddenly ferocious. Her purring Mephistopheles convinces outstandingly in the role of seducer. The rest follows with a deadly clarity through a huskily-edged voice. McLynn doesn’t need to shout. McLynn’s swift balletic movements circle round Jee-Esien’s more regal centredness.
Libby Watson’s feast of early modern rich-not-gaudy fits a doctor’s sobriety, though Wagner (also a woman, Mandi Symonds) gets an attractive sky-blue makeover. McLynn’s Mephistopheles is as scarlet as a cardinal or pope, as we discover when these appear. The Brazilian-African tradition informing the Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins in bright primaries is a gorgeous sin of itself. Saffron and scarlet, cerulean and emerald, they could easily have been parodically obscene as in the 2016 RSC production. Instead in Paradigmz’s choreography their burlesque is scaled to the small stage where the sins strut each kick and twirl as they rub up against a lucky front row.
Leader’s Robin and Louis Maskell’s Dick cavort through early and late scenes, but the central panels are disgraced with Maskell’s Benvolio, a resentful, envious courtier and his sidekicks Leader and Amankwah. Regally-voiced Jay Villiers, as Duke – and Emperor, Pope and Lucifer himself – presides over a court where such courtiers are turned Acteon for a space yet not killed; Benvolio’s reprieved yet makes the fatal mistake of lopping off Faust’s head. Guess what happens.
Marlowe’s play allows no potentate the slightest doubt of Faust’s powers, or qualms about them. Bar an Old Woman (Symonds again) it’s merely Maskell’s Good Angel elsewhere (and Lucie Sword’s evil one) who put up any resistance bar said necromancers and a couple of scholars at the end. It’s the reason why some feel a dramatic slump whilst Marlowe evens up the score against western civilisation.
There’s a tradition that playing Faust in Exeter, both actors and audience saw one too many cowled monks on stage and so it proves with a neat scene where after some invisible Faust foo snatching at the Pope’s venal feast, exorcism is attempted. Fight directors Rachel brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown enact their habitual economy of scale with japes and floating bowls. Havoc ensues but if you count there’s a body too many. Firecrackers ensue to close the interval.
There’s another twist of damnation where Lily Bevan’s wonderfully complaining Horse-Courser is cozened, just to prove the banality of evil, Bevan – normally ascending the social scale way up or down to Beelzebub – becomes a plaintive Everywoman, grounding Faust’s il-deeds without the courts which no-one cares about. A final twirl of Sword’s Helen, her appearing twice (the first appearance for an Emperor sometimes cut) a flailing against final hours provides a livid contrast of un-earthly delights.
The ascent and ascent of candles are used here as tellingly as in the Macbeth. Valdes and Cornelius light them when lowered early on, but the screw turns as they’re lowered towards the end, with all pretence stripped off. There’s a wondrous moment when Faust yearns for waxen wings to fly and all around tallow burns off the callow junketing. You can feel too Faust’s belated attempts to repent tortured out of her before she properly starts.
Jee-Esien’s vocal dexterity and clarity are a tenebrous joy as McLynn closes in, taking a re-dedicated soul, where Leader’s Good angel seems overpowered and Sword’s Evil one almost complacent in quiet pronouncement. Finally though they actually appear in black and white winged apparel, as if the supernatural agencies are mounting their own combat: but it’s only a leave-taking. Randall and Jee-Esien rely on Marlowe’s magnificent language, and with Symonds leading – Wagner’s been chorus throughout – the final chorus and final scene are thrillingly combined.
Of recent Fausts Kit Harrington was stranded in a messy star vehicle, the RSC’s was far more cogent. This production though confronts the farcical middle stretch which lies so at odds with the magnificent opening and close. It’s both more Marlovian and more disturbing, a world turning on the tiniest scratch of an arm, and a look of damnation amidst the frolics. With such details almost unique, it’s one of the most truthful. If this Wanamaker is hell, you should queue for two-and-a-half hours of it.