Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe at the Liverpool Playhouse, 4th to 26th February 2005.

Reviewed by Chris Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Chris. "Review of Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe at the Liverpool Playhouse, 4th to 26th February 2005". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 15.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revchfau.html>.

    Directed by Philip Wilson; designed by Mike Britton; lighting design by Oliver Fenwick; sound design by Jason Barnes. Nicholas Tennant as John Faustus; Jamie Bamber as Mephistopheles; Alan Barnes as The Librarian, the Cardinal of Lorraine, the Horse-Courser, Old Man, Covetousness and Sloth; Michael Brown as Wagner, Alexander's Paramour, the Duchess of Vanholt, Helen of Troy, Pride, and Lechery; Samuel Collings as the Good Angel, Second Scholar, Friar and Envy; Simon Harrison as Valdes, A Creature of Fire, the Devil Wife, Lucifer, the Pope and a Knight; Daniel Osgerby as Cornelius, Friar, Alexander the Great, the Duke of Vanholt, and Gluttony; Daniel Settatree as the Evil Angel, First Scholar, Friar, the Emperor Charles V, and Wrath.

  1. This excellent production was distinguished by extraordinary unity, integrity and tautness, as well as by finely attuned and concerted performances from its 'soloists', Faustus and Mephistopheles, and from its choir of angels, paramours, sins, postgraduate students and other spirits. There was one set throughout, no interval and the production used the 'A' text (described by a programme note as 'thematically more coherent than the 'B' . . . shorter, harsher, more focused and altogether more disturbing'). Cuts of 160 lines further reinforced the tight focus achieved by the single set, as did the willingness to run straight through the play in a concentrated one hour and forty minutes (avoiding the temptation of interval drinks and other such worthless distractions from Faustus' chosen destiny). Equally, the use of a small all-male cast, doubled obsessively, kept bringing Faustus' grandiose dreams back within all-too evident parameters.

  2. The whole drama took place in what was clearly a university library of a properly old-fashioned sort, in which massive wooden shelves of actual leather-bound folios filled the confined space from floor to ceiling on three sides. A high doorway at the rear showed a vista of yet more books piled up to the heavens. Both the rear door and two side entrances were shut off from the outside world by neck-high wooden swing-doors. Everything from temptation, summoning, signing of the contract, visions of ancient heroes/heroines, and visits to Roman and German courts took place inside the library. The almost infinite attractions of learning, and its infinite dangers, were the production's themes; its setting the library, a space offering absolute plenitude and utter emptiness.

  3. At the opening, Dr Faustus, dressed in the mode of British university lecturers circa 1960-70 (brown corduroy jacket, brown tie, grey shirt), sits at the library table together with his postgraduate student, Mr Wagner (camel-coloured duffel coat). Browsing through the volumes open on the table in front of him, Faustus suddenly hears in his head the disembodied words of the chorus, which alternately fly across the library from left to right (using the magical effects of stereo speakers). The postgrad Wagner hears nothing and continues with his reading. Faustus seeks specialist scholarly advice from Cornelius and Valdes; it is clearly a sign of their damnable influence that they ignore the Librarian who tries to stop them talking in the library. Soon the delusive voices in Faustus' head translate into more corporeal-seeming visions as the play opens and he is all too quickly able to see Mephistopheles for a face-to-face tutorial. However, Faustus is able to hear only what he wants to from his tutor, missing several important learning cues.

  4. The production does much with the claustrophobic space of the library: its capacity to hold all the knowledge in the world is evident at the beginning of the play, when Faustus can find all branches of learning on its shelves, while increasingly, as time passes, it seems to become a narrow space from which he cannot himself escape, whatever visions he may be able to order up. Alexander and Helen walk across the library desks, the Pope tries to eat his dinner from them, but Faustus never stirs far from where we first saw him sit. Given his hallucinatory hearing of voices at the opening, it is possible that everything in this production really happens 'inside his head' (to borrow Arthur Miller's original title for Death of A Salesman). If so, his head is a kind of catalogue of the fantasies of knowledge and power that might creep into the head of a lonely researcher with poor social skills (though, as it turns out, perhaps quite a short catalogue). At Mephistopheles' first appearance, Faustus asks for yet more books so that he can understand the physical world and the cosmos more deeply. For once, the play forsakes the hundreds of real antique books lining the set, and Mephistopheles, touching Faustus' eyes and hands, tells him that these are 'the books' through which he might know the world better. Already, Mephistopheles indicates that Faustus has made a bad bargain. Books, it seems, like Mephistopheles' spectacles, can show Faustus everything second-hand and yet nothing he could not have known more immediately through ordinary means.

  5. In contrast to Faustus, Mephistopheles seems to have utter freedom of movement, always making his entrance to the library from wherever Faustus does not expect him (although since 'Hell is everywhere' this benefit is presumably of limited value). Mephistopheles is an urbane, sophisticated figure, doing his best to give Faustus distractions suitable for his new situation; his cool is only put under stress when Faustus insists on discussing things which cannot be borne - the reality of the torment which they now both share. The visions he conjures for his student are nicely balanced: they are both splendid to a degree and always slightly disappointing, as we see the same actors doubling part after part, so that, for example, great beauties of the past always resolve into a moderately convincing female impersonator (the versatile Michael Brown playing Alexander's paramour, Helen of Troy, Pride, Lechery and the Duchess of Vanholt, as well as Wagner).

  6. Mephistopheles' shows appear in amazingly rapid succession as one slick costume change follows another: the uninterrupted one-hour-forty-minutes of theatre/ twenty-four years of Faustus' bargain run by astonishingly quickly. The shows markedly decline in quality as the play goes on - the quickly disposed of slapstick of the Pope's dinner and the horse-courser's spare leg visibly fail to amuse Faustus for more than a minute apiece. Towards the end, the Old Man (perhaps here identified with the Librarian who tried mildly to restrain Faustus earlier on) enters, only just able to stumble across the library, attached to a drip and clearly terminally ill; but, as he can tell Faustus, though Lucifer can torment his body, he knows that his soul is safe. At the end, Faustus, left alone to face the ultimate fate which he could not foresee despite being forewarned, realizes that his ruin has something to do with spending his life in a library and hopes to evade his end by burning his books (an attempted cancellation of the contract which he sealed with Lucifer by applying a cigarette lighter so realistically to his bleeding arm that the Guardian reviewer was convinced that Nicholas Tennant actually self-harmed every night on stage). He sets fire to one of the massive volumes, filling the stage with a genuinely impressive conflagration apparently fuelled by a pyramid of fine books. Shortly, the whole auditorium fills with a dense white smoke, which clears to reveal that at last there has been a set change. Only the library's burnt shell remains, with, at the rear, three charred timbers forming a cross. With his final act of arson, the poor mad scholar, Dr. John Faustus, has finally played out his fantasies and left the library - or life itself - with its Mephistophelean promise of infinite aspiration and eternal disappointment.

Work Cited:

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).