“a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production”
This production from Lazarus Theatre Company reduces Shakespeare’s longest play to a concise one hundred minutes, performed without an interval, by axing all the adult characters. No Claudius, no Gertrude, no Polonius…
The work was initially created as part of an actor in training programme, and the production fails to escape these origins. It still looks and feels like an actor’s workshop rather than a finished piece of theatre. Part of this is deliberate: the setting is an unspecified young person’s space: part drama studio, part therapy group, part corrective training establishment.
The theatre space (Designer Sorcha Corcoran) is stripped back to its black walls exposing the lighting bars, the floor is scuffed with just some fresh blue lines marking zonal space providing some colour. A circle of blue plastic chairs and two props cabinets are the only set. The lighting (Designer Stuart Glover) is often blue too giving some ambience, whilst brighter light from the side bars causes shadowing issues.
An ensemble of nine actors is summoned into the circle by the ringing of a bell. Everyone is dressed in blue sweatshirts, tracksuit bottoms and training shoes. Each is invited to tell their story by an unknown amplified voice (Micha Colombo). This is the method by which Shakespeare’s plot is moved forward; at key moments the voice informs the young people of activities by the missing adults, or of offstage action not seen (“Hamlet has killed Polonius”). The amplified voice becomes an unseen presence with characters looking fearfully upwards, knowing that everything they do is observed. Is this voice then a helpful counsellor or Big Brother?
Central to almost every scene, Hamlet (Michael Hawkey) dominates the action. The remaining ensemble is pushed to the cramped sidelines, slightly but not completely out of the light. Hawkey grows into his role as the play progresses, but the need for speed often impairs the clarity of his diction. Noise from the wind machine and electronic sound effects mask the spoken word in the appearance of old Hamlet’s ghost – although Horatio (Alex Zur) boasts some fine vocal quality – and the occasional use of a handheld microphone with its inherent pops and bangs jars, particularly in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The effectiveness of choral speaking during the Ghost scene is also marred by the amplified sound.
Director Ricky Dukes keeps the actors primarily at a distance as if intimacy between them is not permissible. Hamlet interrogates Rosencrantz (Amber Mendez-Martin) and Guildenstern (Raj Swamy) from the full width of the stage, and again when Hamlet berates Ophelia (Lexine Lee) with “Get thee to a nunnery”. Lee plays her role in an effectively calm manner. When she leaves the stage pursued by a handheld camera, TV screens show her movement through the backstage corridors to her untimely and bloody end in a toilet cubicle.
A comic Players’ scene (Kiera Murray and Juan Hernandez) is nicely done and Kalifa Taylor shines in her lone dramatic rendition. Laertes (Sam Morris) lacks sufficient anger on hearing of Ophelia’s fate but a slowmo sword fight (Fight Direction Alice Emery) between him and Hamlet provides an effective way of staging the final scene.
What is achieved then in this radical rethink of how to present Hamlet is a series of vignettes held together by the framing device of the Voice. This cast, the majority of whom are appearing in their first professional production, all require a little more polish and the production is rather rough around the edges. Considering the loss of so many key roles, though, Lazarus has produced, perhaps surprisingly, a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production.
“Lazarus Theatre Company has found a wonderful Faustus in Jamie O’Neill”
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is his most famous play—and the one that inspired, and continues to inspire—a host of distinguished dramas. Playwrights Goethe and Gertrude Stein are just two who fell under the spell of Doctor Faustus. But anyone who has read Marlowe’s script knows it’s a beast to make sense of. In this production at the Southwark Playhouse, the Lazarus Theatre Company manages its production of Doctor Faustus in a way that is both accessible and enticing. Dare I say diabolically so? Director Ricky Dukes has done a brilliant job in cutting the script to a manageable ninety minutes, and at a pace that makes the time fly by. He has also assembled a cast and crew up to the challenge of making this Renaissance gem coherent and entertaining for a modern audience. If you’re Faustus curious, this is the show to see.
Set in Wittenberg in the fifteenth century, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is the story of an academic who has learned everything there is to learn. He’s frustrated, understandably so, by the limitations of the Renaissance curriculum. He’s also a proud man, and attracted by power. He’s found that studying astrology, medicine, law, and even divinity, is not enough to satisfy his curiosity about the universe. Only studying the dark arts can satisfy his desire for knowledge, and provide him with the power that knowledge gives him over his fellow humans. To a Renaissance audience, the outcome of such an overweening power grab would be obvious from the outset. The appearance of good and bad angels, warning of the evils of such a quest, would be expected. Marlowe’s genius in Doctor Faustus is to show the audience how it all plays out. He does so with the most marvelous language—Marlowe’s “mighty line”—and a host of unforgettable characters. Even the Seven Deadly Sins make an appearance. But the most memorable character is Mephistopheles, the devil’s henchman—the one responsible for getting Faustus to sign away his soul, in blood, on the dotted line.
The Lazarus Theatre Company has found a wonderful Faustus in Jamie O’Neill. He manages a lithe athleticism and intelligent delivery that serves him well with both the language and action of this demanding role. He is ably partnered by David Angland’s Mephistopheles, who displays just the right amount of disdain at the tasks Faustus sets him. There are some genuinely surprising moments produced by the talented ensemble of performers who act, sing and dance around the doomed doctor. Director Dukes is just as skilled a director as he is an adaptor. Candis Butler Jones takes on terror in interesting and innovative ways as she glides from the Bride from Hell to Lucifer. The whole cast is equally as accomplished in the ways they morph from good to evil; from scholarship to sin, and from temptation to the concept of divine mercy understood, at last, too late. Stefan Capper, Rachel Kelly, Henry Mettle, Charis Murray, Jordan Peedell, Henrietta Rhodes and Hamish Somers keep up the pace. They perform, in convincing detail, the consequences of Faustus’ pride.
This dynamic production takes place on a small set populated with flexible office equipment, and with a curtain that reveals and conceals. There is also an eye-catching collection of dramaturgical wallpaper that must have taken set designer Sorcha Corcoran an age to compile. It is tempting to ask if she got some help. Costume designer Reuben Speed provides visually striking costumes, particularly for the Seven Deadly Sins, which are slyly appropriate. Composer Bobby Locke produces an edgy sound for this production of Doctor Faustus, and Lighting Designer Stuart Glover and Sound Designer Sam Glossop round out what feels like a big show in a small space.
The devil really is in the details in the Lazarus Theatre Company’s production of Doctor Faustus, but you don’t need to risk your soul to enjoy it. Catch if you can.