View from the Cheap Seat

Dr Faustus, Chickenshed Theatre

A Magical Tragedy

In this production of Dr Faustus the cast of 10 showcase their quintuple talents; not only do they act, they sing, dance, perform puppetry and magic.  Joseph Morton, the Director, pulls us right into the action by starting the play in the café bar area of the theatre building, with the Chorus of 8 singing the introductory verses of Christopher Marlowe’s play, dressed in seventeenth century costumes of breeches and stockings and waistcoats and shirts.

Joseph Morton exploited the magical elements of Marlowe’s tragedy, in a playful rather than a horrific way. The cast conveyed a fun, knowing use of magic. I was impressed by the burning book incident, where fire erupted from the middle of a book which Paul Harris’ menacing Mephistophilis handed to Ashley Driver’s exuberant Dr Faustus, who, just as awesomely, passed his arm through the naked flames. And even more jaw droppingly, Dr Faustus displayed blood dripping from his arm after cutting it with a knife. It was amusing when an invisible Dr Faustus taunted and haunted the Pope, the Cardinal and the Friar by moving objects and making the Pope levitate. I know the Director made use of magic tricks to create these illusions, but he has done so in a way that is tongue-in cheek and good fun.

Michael Bossisse displayed his sextuple superpower as Lucifer, by rapping Marlowe’s verses about the 7 deadly sins to a recorded drum and bass track. Do not dismiss it as a gimmick, it really worked, it was a fresh and fun interpretation.  7 of the cast portrayed the 7 deadly sins, writhing and dancing, over, under and around an energetic Dr Faustus whom they successfully seduce.

The cast worked equally well as an ensemble and as individual characters. I really enjoyed them as the Chorus, singing Marlowe’s verses in harmony, to explain events to the audience. For the most part, the cast made the seventeenth century language sound contemporary and natural. This achievement is even more remarkable when you realise they only had 3 weeks rehearsal to get to grips with Marlowe’s seventeenth century text, written in verse. I did admire Ashley Driver for his rapid-fire and clear delivery of the detailed text.  His Faustus is haughty, arrogant, naughty and repentant.  This Faustus is also high octane, played at full volume with the whiff of an intelligent and charming narcissist.

Michael Bossisse also played the Good Angel, a Deadly Sin, a Friar and a Knight. I was convinced by his anger and had fun with the caustic one-liners and humour, when as a Knight, he re-entered the scene with a cuckold’s horns on his head.

Will Laurence brilliantly played Wagner as an opportunist, showing off his own magic powers, as well as making the most of his master, Dr Faustus’, magic powers. I was also impressed with his ease with Marlowe’s seventeenth century language, which he made sound so natural.

Although Dr Faustus is a tragedy, there were various kinds of humour. I enjoyed the slapstick interlude created by Fred Ramage as Robin and Benjy Kemp as Ralph. I loved the comedy caused by Mephistophilis, who vexed by Robin summonsing him with magic books, turned Robin into an ape and Ralph into a dog. They instantly achieved their animal transformations in the way they moved their bodies and sounded like the animals they had become.

Morton chose puppetry to portray The Old Man and the first manifestation of Mephistophilis, which added another welcome element of magic to the play. We were also treated to Derek Jacobi’s recording of the voice of the Old Man.

Paul Harris’ Mephistophilis was a dishonest fixer, with danger bubbling just underneath the surface. He barely hid his contempt for the arrogant Dr Faustus, which he sometimes revealed with his cutting wit. Harris performed with the right balance of condescension and menace.  I have to say I also liked his long black frock coat; it was power dressing at its best, stylish and mean-looking adding gravitas to the role he played so well.

The Director’s inspired decision to mash up: magic tricks, projected imagery, puppetry, rapping, singing and dancing set to a modern soundtrack paid off.  It was full of fun, frolics, a bit of fear and tragedy. Overall it was a very entertaining night out.

Dr Faustus is on at the Chickenshed Theatre from 26 September to 21 October 2017.