Celebrations for the 450th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Marlowe are in full swing both in his home city of Canterbury and in Cambridge, where he was a student at Corpus Christi, wrote his early plays and became involved with Elizabethan espionage and counter-espionage.
Doctor Faustus is probably the best-known Marlowe play and was also the inaugural production of the Marlowe Society in 1907. Subsequent student performances have involved future theatrical luminaries such as Terrence Hardiman, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellan and Trevor Nunn.
This new production by Drew Mulligan has designs by Valentina Ricci which reference the 1951 staging by George Rylands whose cast included John Barton. Mulligan provides a prologue in which students assembled for the first read-through of Doctor Faustus bicker about the allocation of parts. This then morphs into the actual play.
You sense from the beginning that Charlie Merriman's John Faustus is a man almost indiscriminately greedy – for the admiration of fellow academics and his students as well as for knowledge. It's a performance well-judged to keep the audience at once sympathetic and understanding yet just so slightly repelled.
The casting of Emma Powell as Mephistopheles is an interesting one. This evil spirit balances a comfortable contempt for the ease with which Faustus is snared and the paltry desires which all-but submerge his intellectual and metaphysical longings with a half-pity for the fatal pit towards which he so relentlessly rolls himself.
Henry Jenkinson is a laid-back dude of a Lucifer. Faustus is simply one of a whole succession of men he will entrap. Maria Pavlakovska suggests the nastiest of evil angels and Helena Blair (with her arm in a sling) battles fruitlessly as the good angel, who would help – if only Faustus would listen. Michael Burrell (Valdes in 1960) plays the Old Man.
The apparitions, from Helen of Troy (Kay Dent) and Alexander (George Longworth) to the seedy nightclub barrel-scrapings of the seven deadly sins, are very well handled. Paul Adeyefa, Joey Akubeze, Hellie Cranney, James Evans and Rhianna Frost with Dent and Longworth are the tattered stuff of nightmares. Which is just as it should be.
Doctor Faustus in this new Marlowe Society production was at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge 29 January-1 February.