“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.
“a passionate dialogue between two great minds, performed by two great actors”
“Do you count on your tomorrow’s? I do not” quips Dr. Sigmund Freud during the opening moments of Mark St Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session”. A BBC announcer has just echoed and crackled from the radio, detailing Hitler’s refusal to withdraw his troops from Poland. It is not the impending war, however, that gives the sense of ‘borrowed time’, but Freud’s terminal cancer that eats away at his health and his will to live.
Dr. Freud is addressing his question to C. S. Lewis who has come to visit him in his Hampstead home. It is an imaginary meeting: not improbable, but one that lets us into a riveting fantasy world to witness the conversations between two of the 20th century’s greatest academics. Lewis’s recent embrace of Christianity stands in stark contrast to Dr. Freud, whose atheist beliefs couldn’t be more different. The ensuing duel, in which words are the only ammunition, powerfully demonstrates the differences between the two men – in age, perspective and spirituality – but also how well matched they are. You can sense the mutual respect and appreciation as they each fight for their own intellectual (and in Freud’s case, literal) survival.
Crammed into the intimate back room of the King’s Head, the audience is a swarm of flies on the wall. Brad Caleb Lee’s design is part office, part practice room, juxtaposed with imagery from Freud’s mind splashed on the floor and the walls. This does not detract from the realism of the piece. Yet what essentially gives the play its authenticity is the impeccable performances from the two actors. Within minutes you forget you are in a theatre. Julian Bird, as Dr. Sigmund Freud, exudes the unseen bruises of a dying man while refusing to let his brilliant, active mind be dragged down by illness. An extraordinary performance in which every sinew is part of the role. Language and body language are inextricably married. Séan Browne’s C. S. Lewis is equally fascinating and steeped in authenticity. Arriving late for the meeting he is initially diffident and perhaps aware that he might be out of his league here. But as the couple lock horns his arguments reach higher ground. The cut glass (albeit chipped rather than clipped) English accent capture’s Lewis’s status perfectly. He has yet to write his famous works and is still finding his voice, but Browne wonderfully depicts a character who holds fast to the convictions of his beliefs.
Under Peter Darney’s direction, the script explores the beliefs of both men like a choreographed sparring match. Amid the air raid sirens, the two scholars debate religion, love, family, the existence (or non-existence) of God, the meaning of life and, of course, sex. Admittedly in an hour and a half you cannot dig too deep into the respective philosophies, but we get a pretty nutritious nutshell. “Things are only simple when we choose not to examine them”. Freud’s line is a reminder that we need to keep our attention focused. Low flying planes and radio bulletins punctuate the piece with reminders of the impending war, during which Browne betrays a shell-shocked vulnerability that adds further light and shade to Lewis’s puritanism. There is a touching, and graphic, moment when he tries to alleviate the physical pain Freud is in.
There is no real conclusion to the piece, but then again, the debate between believers and non-believers will never be resolved. Based on a passage from Dr. Armand Nicholi’s “The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” we come away a little more enlightened. “It is madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning” says C. S. Lewis. “Freud’s Last Session” doesn’t try to solve it in an evening either. But it does offer up a passionate dialogue between two great minds, performed by two great actors. It’s not an easy text to get right but they achieve it in a very real way with performances as precise as they are natural.