Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Last week, my friend and occasional ‘cultural conversation’ partner Jo and I were lucky enough to be invited to a performance of Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse through our friends at The Culture Vulture and we’ve been meaning to write our review ever since. Unfortunately, events conspired against us so far, but, finally, here it is. And just in time for you to catch it before it closes this weekend! We talked in the interval, and since, about the impact the play had on us, and the questions it raises about decisions, faith, morality, and – perhaps most importantly – how amazing Mephistopheles’ final costume was. I’ve reproduced some of our conversation below, with huge thanks to Jo for her fabulous contributions and apologies in advance if I accidentally shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ continually throughout this piece …

If you’re the sort of person who likes your Marlowe and Shakespeare served traditionally, Colin Teevan’s Doctor Faustus probably won’t be your cup of tea. Personally, I’m happy for myths and legends to be re-imagined in a modern context—it replaces the natural evolution of stories that happens in oral traditions—and as the Faustus tale explores such a juicy question—what it means to lose one’s soul—it’s ripe for adaptation across centuries and continents. Luckily for both of us, we really enjoyed this version, and admire the boldness of both Colin Teevan for adapting such a well-known and loved piece of work and the Playhouse and Citizens Theatre, Glasgow for producing it.

From the Playhouse trailer,  we were expecting something much darker than the lurid show we saw.

The sense of menace came in the form of Mephistopheles (Siobhan Redmond) who, we both agreed, stole the show. Jo said that she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see her floating rather than walking across the stage; she oozed otherworldliness. Mephistopheles’ excellent performance was closely followed by Alasdair Hankinson’s back playing Marilyn Monroe. We’ve never seen someone act with their shoulder blades before and Hankinson has set the bar high!

Flanking the main stage space with a secondary set—rows of vanity mirrors, suggesting a theatre dressing room—was a clever touch, creating a blur between audience and actor and allowing us to be in on the jokes played on Faustus—we see a male devil gleefully don a wig, veil and wedding dress when Faustus asks Mephistopheles for a bride. This distinction was played with again, right at the end, when the edges of the theatre backdrop lifted to expose a part of the Playhouse backstage area, repositioning the audience emotionally from being outsiders looking in to complicit in the scene; a small act with a massive effect.

There were a few really nice details in the piece, from a brief moment at the opening of the play when the ‘off-stage’ characters all sit up in their chairs and lean, as one, towards the action, to an Elvis rendition of Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ in a Las Vegas scene.

Jo did have rather a WTF moment about a rabbit. In a scene of debauchery, one of the participants appears in a bunny head. Apparently, nightmarish equals giant rabbit. Cue her version of Tito’s rant about dwarves in dream sequences (Living in Oblivion). There. She’s said her piece. I’m sure she feels better now …

The language in the contemporary parts sometimes felt a bit too obvious, and as a result,  sometimes it felt as though Mephistopheles lost a little of the otherworldliness introduced and performed with such brilliance in the first acts. We perhaps didn’t need to have such blatant examples of evil in order to believe… Having said that, we did enjoy the contemporary acts of the play, and the contrast between them and the original Marlowe text; they were bold, quite fun and introduced a bit more of the conflict in Faustus’ mind.

Whenever Faustus begins to examine the wisdom and morality behind his choices he is told to ‘think on the devil’ and a distraction is created to divert him. Similarly, the heavyweight ideas in the fabric of the play disappear once the show is done, leaving behind a sense of having been thoroughly entertained.

Doctor Faustus closes this weekend, but if you get the chance, do go along to see it. We’d love to hear your views …

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