Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Adaptor and Director: Ricky Dukes
Which of us hasn’t idly thought about selling our soul to the devil? Either for a minor convenience – Homer Simpson got a doughnut for his – or something magnificent. After all, at the crossroads Robert Johnson got a lifetime of musical ability for his trade. It seems like a good deal; do we really use our soul, and if we did, is there really an afterlife in which to be rewarded or damned for eternity?
Marlowe’s 1589 play is a cultural touchpoint for this idea, referenced often when soul selling is mentioned. His treatment of this firmly anti-Christian idea is eye-catching – covering a range of weighty queries about religion, philosophy, God and their counterparts, sin and ambition. It’s a lot to keep in mind and while the team behind this Lazarus company production do a great job on the essentials, there’s too many differences in tone and confusing elements to give the impact a serious play about the fate of a soul could bring.
John Faustus, once he gains his doctorate, decides to focus on magic as a lifelong passion after deciding law, medicine, divinity and philosophy are all for nought. He quickly summons the devil’s demonic assistant Mephistopheles and strikes a blood bargain that his body and soul will be Lucifer’s if the assistant becomes his magical slave for 24 years. The deal done, we see a time warped depiction of his next two decades where he charms emperors, women, souls, gathers wealth and becomes increasingly afraid of his eventual fate.
Faustus’ internal tussle between bullishness with his lent power and repentance out of fear is well balanced, with Jamie O’Neill as Faustus ramping up the character’s tension at perfect pace. Externally, the sparring and interaction between man and demon is intriguing. The demon’s corporate appearance and demeanour, set against the forever student Faustus is eye-catching. Mephistopheles seems to simplify things. Faustus reflects our human trait of overcomplicating ideas and seeking grey areas. Their differences fuel a strange, absorbing energy in this play. As the demon, David Angland is highly effective as a tortured soul who remains in control enough to enjoy inflicting malevolence on the mortal.
There is a fascinating battle here for a man’s soul. However, the production takes lengthy excursions from getting to the point. It’s a nice experience, visually appealing for the most part and engaging, but if you’re someone who likes progress in a story then this may get frustrating. We have these drawn out sections that give their meaning quickly then hang around for far too long: the extended money dance, the tedious explanation of the planetary system, and Faustus’ childish behaviour with the Pope.
Perhaps aiming for an interruptive spike to keep things interesting, some ideas feel incongruous and out of place as well. We have the large, pink fake phallus attached to Lechery (he of the seven deadly sins personified). Indeed, Faustus is not the only odd character on stage in the papal scene – we also have an ill-advised and poorly executed effort at a comical Pope who says “feck” a lot.
The set, from Sorcha Corcoran, engagingly reflects Faustus’ environment as a scholar of magic, a madman’s conspiracy wall with magazine cut-outs and red thread alongside some industrial looking desks. The lighting from Stuart Glover alongside the sound and music (Sam Glossop and Bobby Locke) bathe us, and envelop us in Faustus’ deteriorating state.
“What means this show?” The line generates a good laugh, one of several through the 90 minute production. By the end, however, we’re still not entirely sure what the answer is.
Runs until 1 October 2022