DOCTOR FAUSTUS at the Southwark Playhouse
“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.
Reviewed on 7th September 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Charles Flint
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 9th December 2021
“Dagleish is a genial, amusing Cratchit, winning the audience over with a jaunty charm”
Barring the actual nativity scene, A Christmas Carol is probably the best known seasonal story, not just in its original literary form, but also as a Muppet, a Donald Duck, the inimitable Michael Cain Christmas Carol of course. The same story every time, the same wholesome message of kindness and generosity of spirit. And unless you’re trying to entertain a bunch of kids, it gets a bit tired.
So it’s not a bad idea at all to mix it up and tell the story from a different angle. Writer and director Alex Knott has seemingly gone for a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern vibe, telling the story from the perspective of Bob Cratchit (John Dagleish), Scrooge’s hard-done-by employee and father of tiny Tim. Already suffering a very tight belt this Christmas Eve, Cratchit finds himself, through little fault of his own, owing money he doesn’t have to a couple of criminals.
In a moment of wretched despair he decides it’d be best for his family if he weren’t around to make matters worse. He tries to hang himself, but slips and falls into the frozen river, where he meets three spirits sent to give him a message.
Given that Scrooge is so close by- literally only next door to Cratchit’s cold, meagre office- I was hoping for a bit of story cross-over, maybe catching a glimpse of Scrooge’s own spiritual journey that evening, or perhaps adding something clever to the well-known plot. Instead ‘Cratchit’ is a kind of shadow of the same plot with a bit stolen from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
Except that the message is a little garbled too. Rather than showing an alternate reality, the three spirits take Cratchit into the future, first showing him the second Industrial Revolution, people enslaved in furnace-hot factories. Next, we’re transported to Christmas Day in WW1, lads playing football and singing hymns on no-man’s land. We take a trip through glittering ‘80s Soho, finally landing in our present plague-ridden day, and moving a little further into the future, where we meet Cratchit’s great-great-grandchild, or thereabouts, who’s doing very well indeed. This isn’t a subjunctive future, it’s just exactly what’s going to happen, so why is Cratchit being shown it? Apparently to show him that if you “live long enough, there must be reward for every man.” This is supposed to be the big heart-warming Christmas message: that his life and the life of his children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren might be torturous and near impossible to bear, but one day, someone in that long line might be allowed a little happiness. This seems deeply depressing to me. It also takes forever to work out what the point is.
Emil Bestow’s staging is simple but fairly effective. A criss-cross of wooden slats lays against the back of the stage, housing a few nestled lanterns and sitting in a pile of snow. This is most effective in the blue-black light of a cold winter’s night, when Cratchit is walking home, the warm glow of the lanterns in stark contrast to the bitter cold. Cratchit’s work desk serves as a general prop- something to sit and climb on, to move around and bang with an angry clenched fist. It’s a bit lacklustre in its most anachronistic moments- sitting in the middle of a battlefield, or in the middle of a Soho nightclub- but it serves its purpose.
Dagleish is a genial, amusing Cratchit, winning the audience over with a jaunty charm. His character could do with a bit more meat, but he makes do. Freya Sharp does her best to play all the parts Dagleish can’t. Her facial expressions carry her, bringing a lot of physical comedy into what are generally quite surface parts.
I feel I’ve said this quite a lot recently, but it needs to be at least fifteen minutes shorter- there’s an especially long rant about how awful Scrooge is which could definitely be chopped in half, and there’s a weird Christmas feast hallucination-type scene on the battlefield that I didn’t really understand at all, and which didn’t appear to add anything to the story.
All in all it makes for an entertaining evening if you’re already in the jolly spirit and looking for something festive to hang it on (no pun intended). But through a cynical un-christmasy eye it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Charles Flint
Park Theatre until 7th January
Previously reviewed at this venue this year: