How many of the thousands of supposedly talented people who line the streets of Britain’s major cities every year for the chance to appear on the global phenomenon that is the X Factor ever compare themselves to Doctor John Faustus? Not many, I would imagine. But the similarities are there. They are the people for whom every day life is mundane and boring. They just know there is something more for them out there and they go all out to find it. For around three months every year they sell their soul to the TV executives and will do anything to get fame, fortune and celebrity – only to fade into obscurity before the last piece of tic a tape has been swept from the studio floor.
But there is a difference between them and Faustus. He doesn’t want to sing, he wants to perfect and perform the black art of necromancy. He skips the anxiety ridden, tear filled audition process and replaces it by summoning up the devil’s representative, Mephistopheles. The play shows the eager, young scholar becoming ever more dissatisfied with the usual academic disciplines; law, medicine, politics and logic begin to leave him cold and he looks for an alternative. For him, magic fills the void and Mephistopheles offers him an alternative in the form of an eternal contract.
Following several lapses in confidence where he has the good angel on one shoulder extolling the virtues of God and the bad angel on the other persuading him otherwise. The bad angel, with the help of a visual representation of the Seven Deadly sins, eventually wins him over and he signs in blood - Faustus sells his soul to the devil. All goes well for a while. He is kept busy with glitzy, sell out gigs while being adored by everyone who comes in contact with him. He reaches the top of his game. This lasts for twenty four years before Lucifer calls in the debt and Faustus finally has to pay – with his life.
In this collaboration between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theatre, director Dominic Hill combines the old and new. The circularly structured play begins with the history of John Faustus told by the various members of the cast. Despite the modern setting and costumes the story, for the first few acts, is told in the rich, archaic language, typical of the 16th century. The middles section, where Faustus becomes a famous and celebrated show magician, sees the language become contemporary which, for me, is welcomed. But, the return of the archaic language towards the end is confusing.
Visually this piece is striking. Even before the plays starts the senses are stimulated. Colin Richmond’s set uses the stage to the full; there is no masking in the wings or theatre blacks and almost everything needed is present. Its transparency allows the audience to share in the backstage process of costume changes which morphs actors from character to character.
Writer Colin Teevan has done a great job in bringing an established Elizabethan play into the 21st century. His new scenes show the greed of bankers and media executives. He also suggests that the Catholic Church, in the form of a compliant and dancing Pope may not be all it seems. It shows that Marlowe’s “selling of the soul” motif is all pervasive and one which will never end.
Faustus performs his show all over the world and summons up some impressive people; as well as reincarnating Helen of Troy he brings back to life one of the 20th century’s most enduring icons, a rather surprising Marylin Monroe. Magic consultant James Freedman’s many impressive illusions throughout the show are performed effortlessly and add greatly to the performance.
The cast, a mixture of established and new actors, work well together switching from comedy, song, dance and tragedy to create a very entertaining show. Kevin Trainor is convincing as the tortured Faustus; a geek seduced by the promise of the big time. However when Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles enters as a hooded figure with a deep Germanic accent she had me checking my programme. It was only when the hood came off and her trade mark long, flame hair made an appearance I realised it was her. She is commanding in the role as she struts around for the most part corseted and glamourous, but God help anyone who crosses her. Ann Louise Ross as the ever present Good Angel perfectly compliments Oliver Wilson’s Bad Angel. Gary Lilburn, as various characters from the devil to a rock star, impresses due to his versatility in moving between four different sets of dialogue and his many costume changes. The rest of the actors switch between characters well to give the feeling of a cast must bigger that it is.
Despite some confusion, which I suspect is due to my lack of knowledge of the play, Hill and Teevans give the Faustian story a relevance which will make me look at telly wannabes in a different light from now on.
Doctor Faustus runs at the Citizen’s Theatre until 27th April 2013.