By Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan
Directed by Dominic Hill
Co-production by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Citizens Theatre
Venue: Quarry Theatre
Date: Monday 25th February 2013
This was a bonus performance for us; on our way to Glasgow for Takin’ Over The Asylum tomorrow night, we needed to stop off somewhere and Leeds was a good option. As this was only the second(?) performance, we didn’t expect too much, but I felt this was a remarkable production which fused some modern rewriting of the central sections with Marlowe’s original beginning and end, and came up with a much more accessible piece. Normally I’m not a fan of ‘accessibility’, but I find Marlowe’s work can be tedious and often unintelligible without significant research into the background. Even then he’s not always the most fun to watch, so anything that helps to put this play across to a modern audience has to be good in my view.
We sat on the left-hand aisle, four rows back. To left and right on the stage were two rows of makeup tables, with lights round the mirrors. The middle area of the stage held a double bed (centre back), a washstand on the left with a TV next to it in the front left corner, and a desk and chair front right. There was a standalone door back right with a Portaloo partially hidden behind it, and several old-style CRT TVs around the place, showing nothing but snow. There was a background hum, and occasional announcements in a female voice which we couldn’t make out – a bit like hearing the one-sided conversations coming over the radio in a taxi. (They were meant to be backstage announcements, judging by the middle section of the play.)
Behind all this were some long steps and a curtain, which when opened revealed a shallower stage to the rear of the main one. The curtain was fully removed later, and a hospitality table laden with champagne stood to one side on this upper level. Amongst various items of clothing, chairs, etc. we spotted a panda head sitting on the floor to our right, next to the makeup tables on that side; neither of us spotted it in action, so I don’t know if we missed it or if it was simply cut. The TV screens never showed any pictures, so perhaps there were technical glitches, or perhaps that was also down to the usual state of flux in the early performances. Steve noticed from the text that the final Chorus speech had been cut, though as the ending was a bit uncertain tonight, perhaps it might be back in later on.
It was clear from the outset that this was a modernised reworking, even before I read the details in the programme notes. With some uncertainty over the provenance of Marlowe’s ‘original’, which was published in two different editions after his death, and the likelihood that some of the comic scenes were by other writers and only inserted to poke fun at the Pope and his cardinals following the excommunication of Elizabeth I, the creative team felt comfortable with producing a major adaptation to bring out the central themes of the work in terms familiar to contemporary culture: greed, celebrity, dissing God, etc. Overall this approach worked well, and it’s a production well worth catching if you can.
Before the start of the play, a young Faustus was brought on to sit on the bed as the cast filtered onto the sides of the stage, getting themselves ready. The Chorus was shared between various actors, and a short demonstration of Faustus’s parents leaving him in the room with a packet of crisps and just the TV for company illustrated their low-born status. The older Faustus soon appeared though, and with pauses between scenes to change the set as needed, we learned of his contempt for all other studies except necromancy and saw his first efforts to raise Mephistopheles.
During his initial speech Faustus used a laptop to access the various subjects he was referring to, but he brought out a proper book for the necromancy parts. His good and bad angels tussled verbally for a while, then the good angel, a woman dressed all in white and with a white fur hat, retired to a chair to knit while the bad angel slouched in the opposite corner.
The discussion with his friends wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I did gather that they had been involved with magic for some time and were keen to teach Faustus what they knew. In the next scene, Faustus brought in a bag which appeared to contain a bloody something (possibly a head?), and used the blood to mark out a circle on the floor. The lights were down for this bit – it was night after all – so it was hard to see exactly what was going on. His comments about the other markings on the ground seemed a bit over the top, since all we saw were those few bloody smears, but perhaps they were markings he’d prepared earlier.
Mephistopheles initially emerged through the sofa bed in a hideous form at first, then at Faustus’ command he sank back into the bed and a minute or so later a nun entered through the door – Mephistopheles in disguise. Played by Siobhan Redmond, this Mephistopheles had been a man in the past, and was now damned for all eternity along with Lucifer. Wagner, Faustus’s servant, was also a female role in this version, leading to some interesting scenes later on.
Skipping on to the signing of the deed of gift, Faustus wrote the deed in his own blood, it congealed, Mephistopheles brought fire, cupped in her hands, to soften it, and then the fun began. One of the chaps sitting at the side was wearing a short tutu or petticoat. As soon as Faustus declared that he wanted a wife, this man leapt up, all excited, and rushed to put on a bridal gown hanging at the back of the tables. With the dress, a wig and a bouquet, he was ready and eager at the door as soon as Mephistopheles let her in. Between ‘her’ arrival and Faustus’s line “A plague on her for a hot whore” there was some very heavy petting going on until Faustus realised he’d been had. Later, when Faustus was exploring the book Mephistopheles had given him, the bad angel helped him to locate all the items he asked for, which was mildly amusing.
The Chorus’s description of Faustus’s eight-day journey to view the heavens was cut, so the next scene showed Faustus questioning Mephistopheles about astronomy. Given that our knowledge is much greater now, Mephistopheles’s answers seemed absurd, and left me with the impression that she was telling Faustus whatever he wanted to hear instead of the truth, assuming she knew what it was, of course. As Steve pointed out, Mephistopheles had died long before, so perhaps this was up-to-date for her. Even so, there were one or two pauses before her replies which suggested she was considering the options. Admittedly this section was still the original so the astronomical ‘facts’ did fit the period, but when the piece has been so thoroughly modernised, this lapse into an older time-frame seemed a little discordant.
After Faustus upset Mephistopheles with a reference to God creating the Earth, she left to refer the matter up the management chain – now there’s a version of hell I can relate to! This was when the curtain at the back opened up enough to give us an extra bit of stage, and with a bright light shining through from the back, and Lucifer in a white suit (or was it the shiny one this time?) we were in game show territory. Beelzebub was a no-show, and I think this was where the rest of the cast abandoned the makeup tables and got more directly involved.
The seven deadly sins were entertaining, with actors done up in appropriate masks and costumes, so that although I didn’t always catch the names, I could tell who was who. Mephistopheles played the glamorous hostess, welcoming each of them onto the stage, but when it was the turn of Sloth, she held out her arms…..and nothing. We laughed. She headed into the wings and dragged the lazy bugger onto the stage where he flopped onto the ground and refused to move unless forced to. Now that’s what I call sloth! Lucifer gave Faustus a book as a parting gift, which Faustus promised to keep safe – “This I will keep as chary as my life”.
Following this scene, the stage was transformed more substantially than before to turn it into a dressing room. While this went on, we heard the closing lines of the previous scene over the tannoy, and then Faustus appeared, coming off stage for the interval of his magic show. Between mouthfuls of food, chatting up Wagner and sparring with Mephistopheles, who has some great lines in this section, Faustus eventually changed his outfit and he and Mephistopheles headed off for their second half, at which point I think we took our interval (the text has it later).
The next scene was also in the dressing room, only this time Saxon Bruno, an aging rock star, and Robyn, his girlfriend, were with Faustus. Not that Bruno can remember her name; she’s just the latest disposable pussy. Faustus got very excited when Bruno suggested that he, Faustus, could join him and his band on their next tour, but deflated when it turned out they only wanted him so that he could do some of his magic tricks – explosions and the like – instead of being in the band. (Faustus had played air guitar a number of times, and thanks to Mephistopheles’s magic, an actual guitar riff had sounded each time.) In the text, Faustus takes his revenge by swapping Bruno’s dick and Robyn’s female parts; in performance it became Mephistopheles’s little revenge on Bruno for behaving disrespectfully towards her. Robyn’s dress developed a large bulge (must have made it bigger as well, then) which was drawn irresistibly to Bruno’s nether regions, and she was soon fucking him senseless at the back of the room. After Bruno ran off, with Robyn in hot pursuit, Faustus received the telephone call he’d been waiting for – an invitation to play Las Vegas for the President’s birthday party.
The Las Vegas scenes were still set in the dressing room, with one or two changes to the furnishings. Wagner was preparing for the special guests – setting up the champagne, etc. – while Faustus was trying to connect with her, to have a more meaningful relationship. He did find out that her first name was Grace, symbolically appropriate, and all the time Mephistopheles kept an eye on them to thwart any possible escape from his contract.
Wagner waited in the dressing room while Faustus, helped by Mephistopheles, did his turn for the president. We heard it over the tannoy, but the sound quality wasn’t good enough for me to make it all out. I did gather that Abraham Lincoln was produced to say a few lines, and then Faustus came back to his dressing room to celebrate his success. (Or we had an interval, according to the text.)
The next scene was acted out to the strains of Viva Las Vegas, played loud or soft, depending on whether there was dialogue to listen to. Several of the cast performed a little dance routine on the rear stage, with Mephistopheles and others joining them later, and this dance went on for a long time – quite a workout for them.
Mephistopheles was running a little side line, recruiting new souls for damnation, and in a similar vein to the porter scene in Macbeth, we met a banker, a media mogul and another character who were each given contracts to sign by Mephistopheles from a bundle she had ready. When the banker queried the ‘soul’ bit, he was reassured by her reply that it was “only applicable in the event you have one”, which was well appreciated by the audience.
Even the Pope turned up to have a chat with Faustus, making theological points to remind him that even Lucifer is dependent on God for his existence. A nice addition to the text here: when Mephistopheles offered to entertain the Pope, he refused at first as per the script, but then made a comment that since he’d resigned…., and joined her in the dance. He was a nifty little mover, too.
The President arrived, slightly preceded by three security men in black suits and sunglasses. They kept a wary eye on everything and everyone. After Faustus welcomed the President, he announced another little surprise, and in a few moments we saw Marilyn Monroe slink on stage. The big blond wig hid her face, but from her appearance I guessed it was the same demon who had been Faustus’s bride earlier. Marilyn sang her throaty little ‘Happy Birthday’ song, after which she shimmied over to the President to sit on his lap, and soon they were kissing. Then things got very active very quickly and everyone could see ‘she’ was a demon. The President was hustled away by his security men and everyone else left in a hurry, leaving Faustus alone.
Depressed, he tried to chat up Wagner again, even giving her a necklace of pearls or diamonds, but she wasn’t keen to be involved with him while he was the devil’s disciple. Her exclamation of impatience “Jesus wept!” was followed immediately by “But not for me” from Faustus; by this time I was getting a little fed up with his whinging self-pity. He left to go back to his hotel room, and this was when Mephistopheles told Grace the story of her own downfall; loving a beautiful woman, giving her to the Emperor in return for power and riches, then turning on him and destroying his empire after he discarded the woman. At the end of this scene, Grace and Mephistopheles left together, and it was pretty clear what was in Mephistopheles’s mind; Grace looked like a bunny transfixed by a snake.
With the room in darkness, the security men came back and started hunting around. They heard a noise and disappeared into the Portaloo just before Faustus came back. When Wagner arrived shortly afterwards she started to behave differently towards Faustus, knocking back a glass of champagne before ripping off her coat and revealing the basque and stockings she was wearing. She was on Faustus like a rampant nympho, leading us to suspect this was not the real Grace, and soon they were making the clothes rail shake with their activity. The security men came out of the Portaloo again, and while two of them were sickened by what they saw and ran back into the loo, the third was made of stronger stuff, and spent some time getting a good picture or two on his mobile phone before also hiding.
When the real Wagner turned up, in distress as she had effectively been raped through Mephistopheles taking over her body, Faustus realised what had happened. Despite an attempt to go back to Wittenberg to spend his last remaining years with Grace, Mephistopheles persuaded him that there was no hope of salvation, yet again, and Faustus sent Grace away.
The action was considerably changed from the text for this next bit. The security men came out again and searched the room more thoroughly, pulling a goldfish bowl out of a briefcase, discovering a self-opening box, etc. When they tried to pull their guns out of their holsters they produced flowers instead. Mephistopheles chased them all away at Faustus’s instruction, and then the dressing room was altered again to represent Faustus on the way down. This time he was visited by a Duke and Duchess; she was visibly pregnant. I didn’t catch all the dialogue, but I gathered that she wanted Faustus to do some of his magic for her, produce something special, and he obliged by providing her with black truffles. She gobbled up as many as she could, and then they left.
The next scene had Faustus back in Wittenberg, with the bed and desk back in place – the washstand had never moved. He had several students around him, and they persuaded him to conjure Helen of Troy so that they could see if she was as beautiful as she was reported to be. Faustus obliged, and the same demon who had played Marilyn Monroe appeared as Helen. The wig had long blond curls, the dress was Grecian, and she wafted across the stage looking rather sad, I thought. The students left and Grace turned up to try and save Faustus from himself, while Mephistopheles handed him a dagger so that he could take his own life, a mortal sin of course.
For this scene, Mephistopheles was wearing partial chain mail and had black wings which stuck out at the sides, much less ‘cuddly’ than her earlier incarnations. After a quickie with Helen of Troy, and more pleas from Wagner, Mephistopheles, the students and the good and bad angels, Faustus finally appeared to give in (though not according to the text) and with a final “Ah, Mephistopheles”, he reached out his hand to her and the lights went out. It was an uncertain ending, and there was a pause before anyone applauded, though once we got going the response was strong.
There’s the makings of a very good production in here, although it might take a little longer to bring that out fully. Having read more of the text now, I can see significant changes in the way they’re playing it, with the potential for even more. Some of the stage directions for the new sections are positively fiendish – how on earth would they be able to make a chicken drumstick turn into a dildo? – and the emphasis on the technical side makes this a tricky prospect to pull off. But the cast gave it their all, and there was enough to enjoy and plenty to think about.
The modernisation undoubtedly brought out some of the aspects of the original very clearly, and making use of our society’s current preoccupation with celebrity meshed very nicely with Faustus’s desire for fame and status. There were some losses, though. Despite the Chorus’s references to Faustus mastering his subjects very quickly, his style of dress and adolescent manner was more suggestive of the geeky young man spending most of his time alone in his bedroom, surfing the web and fantasising about all the wonderful things he could achieve, if only he’d get off his arse and actually do something. In this context, his contempt for the respectable avenues of learning could be interpreted as the uninitiated despising what they couldn’t grasp. The effect of this was to give Faustus more of an Everyman aspect, whereas the original, from what I remember, emphasised that Faustus had such a powerful intellect that he was a major prize for Lucifer to win.
The gender-changing added in some ways to the relationships, creating a Faustus-Wagner-Mephistopheles triangle with a sexual aspect which I definitely don’t remember from the original. The down side was losing the focus on the Faustus-Mephistopheles pairing, the central core of the play. In this version, the play became more about Mephistopheles than Faustus, and the sense of humanity constantly falling into the same traps, over and over again, was very strong. Mephistopheles looked thoroughly jaded at having to work with yet another puny example of mankind, whose personal ambition was severely limited by a lack of imagination; not usually an issue in the original, I suspect.
I don’t want to sound too critical, though. Plays are subject to a variety of interpretations, and it’s all too easy to forget that when these classics were written they were referencing contemporary issues, so updating all or part of them is a valid exercise. This new version probably wouldn’t appeal to the purists, but with a largely youthful audience around us, I felt the cast got a good response throughout to help with developing the production. Steve spotted someone at the control desk busily scribbling notes as we left; we don’t know what Dominic Hill looks like, but if we had to put a bet on it….
The performances were good, given that it’s early days, and Siobhan Redmond was superb. She was using a very plummy accent, similar to her Queen Elizabeth in Richard III last year, with very precise diction which made her sound different to the human characters.
I also noticed several echoes of Shakespeare’s work. Apart from the porter scene, the reference to abjuring magic instantly brought to mind Prospero’s line “This rough magic I do abjure”, and of course Shakespeare doesn’t just have a fake Helen of Troy, he provides the real thing in Troilus And Cressida.
Just to catch up with the previous productions I’ve seen: the RSC’s production in 1989/90 was probably a good one, but I found it dreary. I had hoped for more, with Marlowe being such a respected writer and all. The production at Chichester in 2004 had some good points, but it included a promenade during the central section which dissipated the energy as far as I was concerned, while the final scenes, played out in Chichester Cathedral, were difficult to hear – lovely setting, shame about the echo. I’d be willing to see another production some time which relied more on the original published texts just to compare with this experience, and I’ll be careful not to expect too much from it.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me