Two productions of Dr Faustus on Bankside, presented by Little Goblin Productions at the Rose Theatre, and by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Summer 2011.
University of Lausanne
Neil Forsyth, "Review of Two productions of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 13. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revfaust.htm
Little Goblin Productions at the Rose Theatre. Director: Vince Tycer. With Christopher Diacopoulos (Faustus) and Cheska Moon (Mephistopheles).
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Director: Matthew Dunster. With Paul Hilton (Faustus) and Arthur Darvill (Mephistopheles).
- Some of the publicity for the campaign to save the Rose Theatre on London’s Bankside claims that Dr Faustus was first performed there in 1587 when the theatre opened. There is no evidence for this, but in the heat of the campaign it is an understandable confusion. In fact, the first recorded performance of Marlowe’s play in Philip Henslowe’s wonderfully useful diary (‘docter ffostose’, a spelling which may indicate how it was pronounced), was on September 30, 1594 by the Lord Admiral’s Men. That production was almost certainly at the Rose (Bevington and Rasmussen, 48-9), but there may have been earlier performances, and the whole question of the date of writing of the play is uncertain; it may have been written at any time between the success of Tamburlaine in 1587 and Marlowe’s death in 1593. Most recent editors, including David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen in the authoritative Revels edition, favour an early date for the play, c. 1588, but the first performances may not have been at the Rose (Bevington and Rasmussen, 1-3).
- The Rose Theatre Trust regularly allows theatre companies to perform in the tiny performance space it has made overlooking the excavated part of that ancient theatre (the dig lies underneath an insurance company building, and may be visited on Open Days). In the summer of 2011, Little Goblin Productions performed Dr Faustus in a production that contrasted strikingly with the spectacular version staged by the neighbouring Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre during the same summer. Of the latter, The Daily Express wrote: ‘It is the sheer stagecraft which wows the audience .... rude, robust, bawdy, magical and violent, it is a provocatively entertaining production.’ Even the more upmarket Spectator called it ‘a triumph of spine-tingling spectacle’. The contrast of the two versions has a great deal to do with the difference in the two spaces, but also with the money available to each. Above all, it became clear how variously the play itself may be read by two radically different directors.
- The Rose version of the play, directed by Vince Tycer, had a rather understated, almost meditative Dr Faustus (Christopher Diacopoulos), strongly contrasting with the flamboyant performance at the Globe, and an actress Cheska Moon, as Mephistopheles. We might expect an erotic charge between a female devil and the male lead, but the company avoided this. Instead, Moon’s interpretation was sinister, very obviously the focus of the action, dark and extensive eye makeup accentuating the whites of her eyes. As the play developed we became aware that the reflective but changeable Faustus was a deliberate contrast with this splendidly riveting devil. At the Globe, on the other hand, the two male leads, Paul Hilton and Arthur Darvill, came almost to look like twins, and explicitly dressed the same way, in black cloaks and maroon skullcaps.
- The darkened space at the Rose overlooks the watery foundations of the original theatre, marked out by a ring of red electric bulbs tracing the line of the walls down below. Within this historic but fragile space, the stage for the performance of the play, facing no more than three rows of seats for the audience, was set with a desk, a wooden trunk and a bookshelf containing dusty volumes and a skull. In this tiny playing area the audience was startlingly close to those blackened eyes, indeed to every facial expression. In the opening scene, Faustus could almost touch us as he picked up and threw aside each of those faded books. But at the Globe, with its large resources, the books were cleverly represented by a chorus of scholars morphing into insects and white-masked toffs. Spooky music of the spheres (by Jules Maxwell) anticipated the cosmic battle between good and evil, represented by The Good and Evil Angels (Charlotte Broom and Beatriz Romilly). The music and the spectacle were clearly supposed to give the impression that dark necromancy was at work. Wonderful and large false heads and men on stilts performed a lot of the stage business. Indeed Mephistopheles first appeared in a goat’s head. Faustus says ‘I charge thee to return and change thy shape/ Thou art too ugly to attend on me’, whereupon the head split open and the actor appeared. The goat later came back as Lucifer himself. All this splendid puppetry contrasted with a sublime dance of the spheres, the orbs of Galileo’s heaven. And soon a pair of bat-winged dragons carried Faustus and Mephistopheles off to Rome. Even Helen (Sarita Piotrowski), the face that launched a thousand ships, first came on as a Greek puppet. . Matthew Dunster, the Globe director, had given free reign to his designer, Paul Wills, to invent a magical fantasy world that is supposed to intoxicate the audience as much as Faustus himself. It was, at times, both terrifying and hilarious. Theatre as evil, evil as theatre.
- Yet somehow all this magical theatricality did not quite come off. Cinema does better dragons. Furthermore, in sticking to the 1604 text, Dunster followed what is by now a Globe tradition and gave full value to the low-life knockabout comedy, a parallel adventure in which Faustus's servant, Wagner (Felix Scott), becomes embroiled in a horse-trading adventure with a slow-moving clown Robin (Pearce Quigley), an ostler with a false nose (Richard Clews) and a crowd of villagers straight out of Breughel. Those among the groundlings standing close to the stage were squirted with water and even splattered with bits of masticated banana; there was urination (not on the audience), drunkenness and much lechery. Marlowe’s Latin, even the famous ‘O lente lente currite noctis equi’, was cut to give space to the ‘more accessible’ comedy, much of it perhaps written by a collaborator. Quigley exploited all the farcical possibilities as the groundlings cheered. One wondered occasionally as one enjoyed all this fun what had happened to Marlowe’s quasi-morality play primarily concerned with the serious business of salvation. An answer might be that all this triviality is what Faustus has in fact sold his soul for, and indeed Mephistopheles never does answer any of Faustus’s scientific or philosophical questions about the nature of the universe.
- Apart from one amazing ‘false’ beheading, the highpoint of the Globe spectacle was perhaps the parade of the seven deadly sins (one of Marlowe’s additions to his source). ‘Covetousness was a shrieking jewellery queen, Gluttony so fat and farting he could not stand up, and Lust a spreading vamp who consumed them all’, as Micahel Coveney put it in The Independent. Yet at the Rose, in that intimate space, those seven sins were all performed by one remarkable actress, Zimmy Ryan (who also doubled as the Emperor, the Duchess of Vanholt, and Helen). Her transformations were worth all the Globe’s expensive spectacle. Neither production quite managed the awe that one ought to experience at the end of the play, and neither fully allowed the sometimes extraordinary language to take us into Faustus’s gathering torment. Nevertheless, the minimal Rose production somehow captured more of that sense of doom.
- It is to be hoped that the important archaeological project at the Rose gets enough funding for the future, or at least that it can continue to host such fine little companies. However, as I write this piece, there is still no news as to whether the Rose Theatre Trust has succeeded in obtaining Heritage Lottery Funding for the generous sums that will be necessary to complete the excavation of the 40% of the Rose still buried near Southwark Bridge, and some of the publicity is pessimistic that the theatre will even be able to stay open. (Pictures and further information are available at the Rose Theatre Trust's website.)
- Bevington, David, and Eric Rasmussen, eds. Dr Faustus: The A and B Text (1604, 1616). The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993. Print.
- Rose Theatre Trust. The Rose: Bankside’s First Theatre, 1587. Web. Accessed 29 Aug. 2011. < http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk/index.php>
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© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).