Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

We live in an era of soul selling. Whether in return for a taste of dubious celebrity, bulging property portfolios, ludicrously lavish lifestyles or vast sums of cash, an astonishing number of individuals are queuing up to enter into perilous faustian pacts, destined to change their lives beyond recognition.

What could be viewed as the ultimate cautionary tale of a man, who sold his soul to the devil in return for endless pleasure and absolute knowledge, was written over five centuries ago. Its creator was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, who rose to become a scholar and a gentleman. But the life he led was far from gentlemanly, punctuated by brawling, carousing and rabble rousing, while at the same time taking London theatre by storm.

Christopher Marlowe’s rise from rags to riches and his brief, brilliant existence make him very much a figure for our times. Even his death, at the age of 29, holds familiar echoes. Was Shakespeare’s nemesis and professional rival killed in a drunken fight in a tavern or assassinated for being a secret agent? We shall never know, of course, but the fascination lives on.

Director Patsy Hughes has identified similar contemporary resonance in the Wittenberg academic and philosopher, who is the central character of Marlowe’s great, though flawed, moral tragedy Doctor Faustus. In the play’s Prologue, Faustus is compared to Icarus, whose overarching ambition caused him to fly so close to the sun that his waxen wings melted, bringing him crashing to earth.

In this conscientious reworking, Hughes has endeavoured to keep faith with the speech rhythms and poetic demands of the original text, stripping Marlowe’s flamboyant, multi-layered plot back to a solo performance within a minimal book-strewn set. In Shaun Blaney she has found a brave, energetic young actor who emerges word perfect at the end of almost an hour of intense performance. No mean feat.

In appearance, he registers more like an earnest student, tall and gaunt, wrapped in a tweed overcoat, scarf and waistcoat, possessed from the onset with a barely suppressed inner passion, which offers few additional emotional opportunities as the dramatic tension builds.

Initially, he has good command of Marlowe’s carefully constructed pentameters but it would take an actor more mature of voice and of considerably greater life and stage experience to maintain those demands, while trying single-handedly to shoulder a play of massive scale, whose cast includes devils, magicians, angels, cardinals, dukes, an emperor, a Pope, cupids, monks, soldiers, knights, a horse-courser, a vintner, a carter and the seven deadly sins.

Doctor Faustus is generally acknowledged to be the most theatrically effective of Marlowe’s plays. Much of its dramatic power is owed to the assault it launches on the senses as well as the intellect. It is both a tragedy and an entertainment, offering entertaining glimpses into hell while exploring profound theological themes.

Faustus’ rejection of the Holy Spirit is here interpreted as an entirely internal affair. The teeming dramatis personae are reduced to a double act between the learned doctor and the fallen angel Mephistophilis, with the two characters differentiated merely by a straightening of the back and a calming of the voice, as the first gives way to the second.

In viewing this great philosophical tussle only through Faustus’ thought processes, Marlowe’s visual and aural lushness go rather by the board and there are many missed beats. There is, for instance, scant sense of the terrible bleakness oozing from Mephistophilis’ speech, beginning “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it”, in which he vividly describes the eternal torment of the damned.

Nor do we witness the transformation of “that heavenly Helen” into a grotesque presence, offering only deathly kisses and embraces. As the clock chimes the final minutes of Faustus’ time on earth, one longs to share the terror of his vision of Christ’s blood streaming in the firmament, yet without a saving drop for him.

It is difficult to see how a production of this, of all plays, could be denuded of so many of its vital elements and be expected to survive as the exhilerating piece of theatre from which it sprang.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast based arts journalist, performing arts critic and screenwriter, who also reviews for The Irish Times and The Stage.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

7 & 8 December 2010

Produced by Green Room Productions
In Crescent Arts Centre

Directed and adapted by Patsy Hughes

With: Shaun Blaney