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Fainting with Pleasure at Faustus

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On the hottest day of the year, they were dropping like flies at the Globe during Doctor Faustus. It really is quite a safety hazard in this weather, the Globe, but perhaps folk were also affected by the sight of a man defying God with magic tricks.

I agree with Whatsonstage.com reviewer Maxwell Cooter that Paul Hilton isn't lyrically heroic enough in the title role. But he is a compelling actor, and where do we find actors like Eric Porter to play these roles?

There's nothing in our theatre quite like the last scenes of Faustus, with the vision of Helen and the doctor's soaring farewell to the heavens and the life he's bartered away in search of "forbidden" fruit and knowledge.

I can still hear Porter at Stratford-on-Avon over 40 years ago: "Ah Faustus, Now hast thou but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damned perpetually: Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease and midnight never come."

Max rightly bemoans the excision of "O lente, lente curite noctis equi" in this inviolable speech.... don't tell me a good actor (and Hilton's pretty good) can't act the meaning of that line, which is simple enough in Latin anyway. Boris Johnson would be appalled that it's gone. So am I. 

Otherwise, I reckon director Matthew Dunster does a pretty good job at bringing the upper and lower worlds together in this production, handling the comedy of the horse-trading particularly well and making it one with the overall tragedy. It's horse for courses and souls for the coals.

Outside on the river in the interval, sipping cold drinks and licking ice-creams, a Russian tourist told me he'd much preferred Much Ado earlier in the week, finding Faustus a bit, well, soulless, suitably enough. I think he thought Shakespeare had written this one, too.

I didn't like to disabuse him, but I did point out that it was fairly unusual to see a Doctor Faustus that actually hung together as well as this. It's a medieval morality play as well as an intellectual disquisition of life and learning. I absolutely love it.

Earlier in the afternoon I'd caught a matinee of Louis Nowra's Cosi at the King's Head, a play about putting on Mozart's opera in a lunatic asylum, but without the music. A witty idea, this, for the OperaUpClose season of musical masterpieces on the cheap.

Upper Street was heaving, and there was a fair-to-middling matinee audience for so stuffy and scorching an afternoon. A pint of lager tasted very good indeed.

I remember Louis Nowra's name from my first trip to Australia, but we never see his plays here. This one's semi-autobiographical, and obviosuly recollected in some sort of tranquillity: it wasn't written until 1992 but recalls events in a Melbourne institution where Nowra himself once directed this piece way back in 1971. 

It's very clever at integrating a loony tunes scenario with Da Ponte's plot, and it's the kind of fringe play you used to see a lot more of when the fringe knew its place and didn't try doing "West End" on the cheap.

That cultural gap is implicit in the play itself: Lewis, the director (ie, Nowra), is accused of piddling about with "meaningless" Mozart while the students outside are on the march against the Vietnam War. And Lewis himself has settled on Cosi after first trying to interest the inmates in Brecht's The Exception and the Rule: they don't want to know, basically.

Of course, the Mozart, even without the music, turns out to be about their own real lives anyway -- fidelity, trust, betrayal and love -- in a way Brecht's play never could be. But in the 1970s, political theatre was never personal. It was too high-minded for that. And nowadays, swinging to the other extreme, the personal is more or less all the political we've got in the theatre.

As Faustus realises, there is nothing to compare with the love of a good woman. Or, in his case, Helen, and he leaves it too late: "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies. Come Helen, come give me my soul again. Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips, And all is dross that is not Helena."

Even Mozart couldn't set that to music and make it sound more beautiful. Nor, to be fair, could Berlioz.


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