Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Doctor Faustus tells the tail of a man selling his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge, power and possession. The play touches upon the timeless battle between good and evil, black magic and, perhaps more contemporaneously, madness.
Cambridge University ADC has adapted the play; it is a little shy of one hour and has a cast of six. To enter the auditorium, the audience must step over the various curled-up bodies strewn around the space dressed in what look like eighteenth-century hospital gowns. Faustus is sitting centre stage with his back turned to us, writing frenziedly at his desk. The play, true to the original, begins with the doctor’s soliloquy where he explores his temptation to sell his soul. Eventually through incantation he summons Mephistophilis (a demon from hell) who quickly agrees to the purchase. What follows are the subsequent meetings of Faustus and Mephistophilis and the resulting ‘gifts’ that the doctor receives; these range from a book containing the answer to every question in the universe to a chance to meet the pope.
Faustus (Benjamin Blyth) and Mephistophilis (Toby Parker-Rees) are played by the same actors throughout but the other characters are shared out amongst the chorus. Blythe is a strong lead whose final soliloquy is effective in its hysterical fear and encroaching insanity; Faustus stands centre stage, shouting in nothing but his underwear, with blood-stained arm and tear-streeked cheeks. There could have been a better build up to this moment however, with a more put-together impression of the protagonist at the opening of the play. Displaying the doctor’s human side at the start would make his descent into a crazed power addict more disturbing; even at the start Faustus barely flinched when he carves his own arm with a knife. Parker-Rees plays a swaggering, arrogant Mephistophilis whose dispassionate demeanour is an effective counter-balance to Faustus.
What stood out most, however, was the chorus. Comprised of five, the ensemble give an excellent, brave and innovative performance. The highlight of the play is when the seven deadly sins are played out by the group who give a gut-wrenchingly visceral portrayal of each. They throw themselves at the audience; arrogantly condescending or furiously climbing over the chairs in fits of rage. There are some very talented actors in this ensemble and the group work together beautifully. There is also a humorous portrayal of the Pope, and this whole scene provides a witty scene of comic relief.
The costume, staging and lighting are modest and effective; simply lit darkness, with the occasional blackout providing only candle light, hint at the kind of atmosphere that the cast would have enjoyed in the play’s original setting which was an old church.
This show is a sound student production with the kind of fresh, uninhibited performances that one hopes for from student theatre. Small factors like poor diction, low volume and careless blocking (there is one point when Mephistophilis’ back is completely blocking the back of Faustus; both are inaudible and barely visible) are what prevent the show from appearing professional and, if rectified, could potentially make it extraordinary.