Review: Doctor Faustus (The Bike Shed, Exeter)

Tangle Theatre presents a 90-minute version of Marlowe’s classic

Magic may be a dark art, but it is illumination Doctor Faustus seeks – and that the devil seems to offer him in Christopher Marlowe‘s play. Anna Coombs’ production for Tangle, south-west England’s African Caribbean theatre company, crackles with Hansjorg Schmidt’s terrific lighting design: tempting flares signify spells, glowing lines of blood sneak down flesh in neon strips, banks of bulb blind us when devils are angered.

Of course, Faustus pays the ultimate price for living 24 years at full-wattage: his soul. And Marlowe’s play, while allowing some sympathy with Faustus’ ambition and hunger for knowledge, also shows how hollow any pact with the devil will inevitably be.

In Tangle’s condensed, 90-minute version, this is especially the case: Faustus barely seems to enjoy his limitless powers before he’s being packed off to hell, and the jaunty tricks he does play seem wholly vacuous. Performed by a cast of three playing multiple roles with many quick costume changes, the narrative thrust or significance of some of these scenes isn’t always terribly clear, while the comedy subplot featuring Faustus’ bumbling servants is overdone. That it rarely raises a chuckle, is, however, in a good part down to the text: Marlowe’s humour hasn’t exactly aged well.

The more mysterious, anguished portions of the play, showing the tussle between good and evil in pursuit of a man’s soul, work better. Incantations and a capella songs, inspired by southern African traditions, heighten the heady, moody atmosphere. Despite an economic set of little more than metal shelving units and anglepoise lamps, and simple modern costumes (think leather jackets and tracksuits), Tangle still evokes a sense of high Renaissance drama; Mephastophilis’ winged entrance, created simply with backlighting and a spread overcoat, is especially effective.

Joshua Liburd as Doctor Faustus charts a brisk journey from an almost naive, smiling arrogance to despair, and Mogali Masuku is superb as Mephastophilis: at times his ally, at times his bully, she has a dry wit and watchful, intelligent presence. Her silky transformation into Helen of Troy underpins both the lack of true substance in the trifles she distracts Faustus with and plays on the erotic connection between the man and his tempting devil.

Rounding out the cast, Munashe Chirisa performs with a liquid physicality; no word goes unaccompanied by an elaborate gesture. It’s a performance that often seems stylistically at odds with the others, but which attempts to find daft humour in a large cast of characters; he gives a good comedy Pope.

This Doctor Faustus may sacrifice clarity occasionally, but the straight-through run-time means momentum is sustained, whizzing past Faustus’ wasted years to his damnation. It is a fleet, flickering interpretation of Marlowe’s portrayal of the struggle between light and dark.

Doctor Faustus is on tour until 17 March.