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:
Midnight In Manhattan
Reviewed – 15th November 2018
“Newham and the rest of the production team have serviced these plays well. They are just right and never overdone”
Hidden in plain sight in an alleyway off Hampstead’s High Street, Pentameters Theatre takes its charming home, where it has lived for fifty years. Old photos of historic theatrical greats pave the walls; nooks and crannies are filled with books and records; and the seats in the front row are an assortment of armchairs. The venue itself is as much a part of the action as what takes place on its oblong-ish stage. I was welcomed and shown to my seat by founder Léonie Scott-Matthews. It felt like to be in the theatre was to be a part of a secret party of authentic live art devotees. I was rather captivated by it all before the show had even begun.
To celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, Pentameters are working their way through rather beautiful stagings of Tennessee Williams’ early one-act plays, which he produced with amazing frequency and facility. Midnight in Manhattan transports the audience to New York, to three unhappy and cursed marital and extramarital situations. Theatrical readings of two of Williams’ poems aptly punctuate the drama.
Subtle jazz selected by Sound Designer Lee Ryda created a seamless through line as one piece moved to the next. Godfrey Old’s set used the space effectively, creating a bedroom and a living area simply but distinctly. Attention to detail, such as the labels on the bottles either being removed or in period, would have made the design great. Each central woman in each play wore a silk dressing gown, which was a lovely touch. Old’s hand-drawn publicity design is perfectly in keeping with Williams’ style: reflective of reality, yet slightly dreamlike. Ollie Edwards’ lighting design was simple and effective, but a lamp or other form of onstage light would have added a further layer of intimacy.
Every Twenty Minutes has a sardonic humour, which Andrea Milton-Furtlotti and Richard Stephenson Winter played very well, by preserving the text’s genius depressing sincerity. However, to mount the irritable tension between the couple, silence between retorts could have been used more effectively, to justify the Woman’s sudden outburst at the Man. Milton-Furlotti, in a difficult role as the sidelined wife, fleshed out her performance by avoiding being too pathetic, which kept the tennis match with her husband more interesting. Ava Amande in The Pink Bedroom was the perfect balance of haughty and tragic.
Director Séamus Newham’s choice to double up the Man in Every Twenty Minutes with the Man in The Pink Bedroom and Joe Cartwright in The Fat Man’s Wife works very well, as this allows the texts to interrelate, and their poignancy to hit home. Therefore, the tantalising offer to the audience is that Amande’s character is the lover of the Man in Every Twenty Minutes, as well as of the Man in The Pink Bedroom. The silent characters in one play are allowed to speak in the next. Stephenson Winter’s performance in all three is expertly odious – we love to hate him as the poor women in his life do. And David Angland as the Woman’s Younger Man in The Pink Bedroom and Jessica Boyde’s younger admirer, Dennis Merriwether in The Fat Man’s Wife, represents the possibility of a heavenly escape for these trapped women. That they can only escape by another man’s possession reminds the audience of just how trapped they are. Angland plays Dennis with youthful energy and just a hint of the tortured.
In terms of quality of writing, complexity of situation and length of duration, Williams certainly builds up to the final play in the trio, The Fat Man’s Wife. This is also the only play in the trio Midnight In Manhattan where the characters have names – they are allowed to grow to being more than archetypes and metaphors of unhappy predicaments. Jessica Boyde is utterly hypnotic. Her performance stands out in this strong company of five by its nuance and tenderness. There is a brilliant moment where her husband unclasps her dress, and it is clear that the spark in their relationship is long extinguished.
Newham and the rest of the production team have serviced these plays well. They are just right and never overdone. Overall attention to detail in the staging and more time for pause in the first two plays would have fully realised the precise tragedy of Williams’ writing. But I recommend Midnight in Manhattan with confidence, and Pentameters with a happy heart.
Reviewed by Eloïse Poulton
Midnight In Manhattan
Pentameters Theatre until 2nd December
Previously reviewed at this venue: