There's something rather unnerving about being ushered into a cold, slightly dank space lit mainly by flickering candlelight. The hollow, shell-like remains of the 400-year-old Rose Playhouse sends a slight chill through me as I pull my coat tightly around myself and shove my hands in my pockets for warmth – although, to be fair, it is a nippy February night.
This evening, director Martin Parr is showcasing his newest work: a one-man adaptation of Doctor Faustus. While many are celebrating 2014 as Shakespeare's 450th birthday, this production pays tribute to Marlowe: born in the same year as the bard, Marlowe was one of the most popular dramatists of his day (more popular, actually, than Shakespeare, whose success truly took off after Marlowe's death). Marlowe's demise is somewhat mysterious, with some even claiming that he faked his own death, and it is with this sense of unease that this production of Doctor Faustus takes to the stage.
Christopher Staines is Faustus: the self-made man graced with learning and intellect, whose curiosity leads him to make a pact with the devil. Staines begins by sitting at Faustus' desk in the dim lighting, next to the pile of books that will inspire the making and marring of him. He recites an abridged version of the Chorus' prologue, setting the scene for what turns out to be a truly unnerving psycho-drama: what we have here is a man quite literally battling his inner demons.
Staines portrays all the characters in Marlowe's texts. The voice of the devil Mephistopheles is his: pre-recorded, calm, and uncannily disembodied. There is a real sense of Faustus leading himself on to his own doom, with the entirety of the drama seemingly playing out within his own mind. It is genuinely creepy. A key moment is when Faustus opens his book of necromancy to reveal the demonic symbols written therein: it is blank. Everything is quite literally in Faustus' head, and Staines' portrayal of this is thoroughly unsettling.
The production uses the space at the Rose to extremely effectively, with the playhouse's foundations covered in candlelight, and the drips of the river's water-level echoing in the quieter moments of Faustus' insanity. At 75 minutes without an interval, the production is lean and pacey, with Staines' mercurial performance never letting slip the energy and horror of the piece. This is also helped hugely by the music: discordant strings and dissonant piano create a mood-scape that knows exactly how to ramp up the tension.
There is a surreal digression in the Pope scene, which contains a strange blend of improvisation, audience interaction, and reference to The X Factor. Staines jokes that Marlowe is turning in his grave, and I must admit to feeling vaguely annoyed during this section. However, the scene is purposefully playful, and seems to make fun of the reverence we show to authors and the perceived blasphemy of amending their work. While Faustus attempts to conjure the devil, so does Staines – in this case, Marlowe himself.
This is an audacious production that doesn't shy away from being genuinely disturbing. Go if you dare – but wrap up warm.
Doctor Faustus is at The Rose Playhouse, Bankside until 28 February 2014