By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
Students make a lot of bad decisions, but Dr Faustus, a scholar at Wittenberg, really takes the biscuit. And then sets the biscuit on fire. You might have pulled an all-nighter or missed deadlines this term, but at least you didn’t (100% soberly) sell your soul to Lucifer in exchange for powers which you then wasted on pranking people. That may seem a flippant way of looking at Marlowe’s masterpiece, but this all-female production revels in all the dark, comic and darkly comic facets of the play. This is a great achievement in tone, because otherwise the loutish cretin Robin (Martha Owen) and the tormented, erudite Faustus (Lucia Rimini) would feel like characters from two completely different genres mashed together.
I must inform the reader that this is an abridged version of the play. The run time of this production is a little over an hour, whereas most run to two hours and fifteen minutes, meaning that a lot had to be cut. The cuts were made by the production team, rather than using a pre-prepared abridged script; and the choices were sound. At no point in the performance did anything feel spliced or disjointed. Unless you know the plot and have read the play beforehand, you can’t tell what’s been omitted. That is the sign of good editing. I particularly commend the choice to cut the epilogue, as it meant the play ended with a powerful resonance rather than feeling like a morality play.
Lucia Rimini’s performance takes a while to warm up at the beginning, coming across as too restrained in the first scenes, with little hint of the recklessness and arrogance that underpins Faustus’ character in her delivery. It is not until Faustus sells her soul that Rimini gains traction and Faustus feels present and comes to life. While contrast is necessary to show the change in Faustus’ character over the course of her arc, more energy and vigour at the start would have perfected it. The climax is the peak of Rimini’s performance; and Faustus’ panic is terrifyingly believable. Some of her lines got lost in a string of word vomit, but the scene is still exhilarating.
Lucy Fourgs as Mephistopheles is consistently excellent, conveying both the seductive charisma of the character and her despair at being eternally shut out from Heaven. Her delivery is smooth and engaging and gives her character a presence onstage, working particularly well in her scenes with Faustus. The chemistry between the two is invaluable to the strength of their scenes and gives Faustus’ attempts at repentance and Mephistopheles’ ensuing anger a new resonance, as Fourgs sounds very much like a jilted lover. The sexual tension was so palpable I was blushing.
The supporting cast is strong, especially when in synchronisation as Lucifer- the choice to have the devil as a monster made out of hands was inspired. Katherine Johnson’s Madame Wagner is understated and contrasts effectively with the raucous Martha Owen, whose portrayal of a pope is as hilarious as it is irreverent. The choreography was sinister and atmospheric, although there were a few lunges in one sequence early in the play that looked like they came out of the diabolical equivalent of a Pilates video.
Caitlin Burrows and the team are to be commended for the ambition and beauty of their set design. The pastoral scheme joined neatly together the themes of the supernatural, magic, lust and faith. The presence of real grass was a bold choice and while it made the Drama Barn smell a bit, it was not a distraction. The play was highly atmospheric, from the red light (fortunately not overused) to the ethereal chimes of bells. The defiant chewing of apples was a deft allusion rich in symbolism and prompted further reflection on the themes of the play. The play’s poster was confused and tonally dissonant in its use of blue, purple and coral pink, but this does not detract from otherwise sterling production values.
Dr Faustus is the crescendo of a term of quality theatre at the Drama Barn. Watch it. Oh, and if anyone offers you a First in exchange for your soul- just say no.
Catch the final 3 performances of ‘Doctor Faustus’ in the Drama Barn, Friday-Sunday 24th-26th November 7.30pm. Tickets available online or on the door.