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Joss Bennathan On ... Doctor Faustus at Stratford Circus

Stratford Circus is an arts centre situated right next to the Olympic site, which opened in 2001. Here, Joss Bennathan, director of Doctor Faustus, which opened there this week, tells us about the play and this hidden gem of a venue.

How did you get involved with the production?
I’m artistic director of Present Moment so I’ve been involved since the day I woke up thinking “Mephistopheles’ first appearance in Doctor Faustus is like Arnie’s first appearance in The Terminator.” Which it is.

Doing classics always brings with it the burden of association with previous productions. Is this something you're aware of? Have you been particularly influenced by a previous production yourself?
In fact, I’ve never seen a stage production of Doctor Faustus. I’ve seen the Richard Burton film. It’s awful. Lots of men in tights, a sound track of crumhorns, viols and whatever those drums you hold are called. Sonorous intonation of lines. Everything that classic theatre shouldn’t be and that films of stage productions shouldn’t be.

The burden is the fact that a lot of people expect the classic repertoire to be inaccessible and unengaging. And it often is! So they don’t go. That was the point behind Present Moment – to find ways of doing plays like The Country Wife, The Alchemist and now Doctor Faustus and make them accessible and engaging without dumbing down.

What can we expect from your interpretation?
A review of our second production, The Revenger’s Tragedy, began with the sentence “Present Moment take plays written centuries’ ago and perform them as if they were written yesterday”. You can expect narrative clarity, comedy – it’s a funnier play than people expect – horror and tragedy. We’ve set it in a modern metropolis with Mephistopheles as a puppet master creating the story around Faustus. No men in tights but a lot of men in suits and an atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance. It’s a very visual production and very fast moving. All over in an hour and three quarter with no interval.

How did you find the casting process? What were you looking for and what did you find?
There are so many talented actors out there; any director is spoilt for choice. Babou Ceesay, who's just about to start rehearsals with the RSC, plays Doctor Faustus. I wanted a Faustus who's a recognizable human being – an academic geek who’s super bright but not connected with the real world – not a Tragic Hero. Simon Rivers, who plays Mephistopheles, combines sinister and smooth. He’s like the best mate Doctor Faustus never had. With the rest of the cast – who play multiple roles - it was important to find people that were versatile and could establish believable characters quickly. And were physically skilled performers. There’s a lot of transformation goes on.

Stratford Circus isn't a venue that many people will be familiar with. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s a fantastic arts centre just next door to Theatre Royal Stratford East. People outside Newham may not know about Stratford Circus yet but we hope Doctor Faustus will help change that. It’s a 300 seat state of the art fully accessible theatre – and there’s a café/ restaurant in the building too.

They stage dance, comedy and have a fantastic children’s theatre programmed in their studio theatre. Doctor Faustus is the first full-length run that’s been done there. We wanted to perform in the East End – and give concessionary tickets to all residents in Newham, Tower Hamlets, Havering, Redbridge and Waltham Forest – because why should you have to go up west or to the National or (the other) Stratford to see the classic repertoire?

We hope that we’ll be part of the Stratford renaissance and that people from all over London will come – it only takes 15 minutes on the tube from the West End. And they seem to be coming from all over London but from all over the country and abroad. We had a group from New York at one of the previews and there’s a school party from Cumbria coming next week.

How has the development of the Olympic site affected the area?
The Olympic stadium is being built just across the road from Stratford Circus. I think it’s too early to say what the ultimate effects, good or bad, will be – but if it draws people’s attention to what an exciting part of London this is and if the money benefits everyone, then that’s a good thing.

- Doctor Faustus continues at Stratford Circus until 6 February 2010.


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