Review: Dr Faustus

PHOEBE LUCKHURST is entranced by this new incarnation of Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’; includes must-see first night photos of this must-see play.

Ben Blyth British Gas Cambridge Theatre Dr Faustus Kettle's Yard Marlowe Phoebe Luckhurst The Movement

Dr Faustus (The Movement)
19th – 24th January
Directed by Rory Attwood


My friend and I arrived at 7.45pm sharp: “Wait, no, I don’t know where to sit…every seat’s so…exposed. What if we get heckled?” Such was the intimacy of Rory Attwood’s Doctor Faustus. The theatrical space was St Peter’s Church at Kettle’s Yard, a medieval construction  which an estate agent might push as ‘cosy’ were it not for the frankly baltic climes inside. They didn’t have British Gas in the Dark Ages apparently. However, publicity advised me to wrap up warm, and I was kindly offered a blanket upon arrival so, the aforementioned criticism is really a misguided scraping of the proverbial barrel to try and find something that I didn’t like about this production of Marlowe’s drama.

For those of you not expected to write a Part I portfolio essay on Dr Faustus, Marlowe’s drama is the tale of John Faustus, a brilliant scholar who, having perfected all other academic disciplines, tires of conventional academia (don’t we all) and turns to conjuring a Lucifer’s disciples (don’t we all). Mephistophilis, one such disciple, appears and agrees to pander to Faustus’ every whim as long as he can have the mortal man’s soul in exchange. Furthermore, the devils will collect his mortal body in 24 years’ time, placing a time limit on his life of Riley. In the meantime, cue trips to Rome to antagonise the Pope – just because he can – and trysts with Helen of Troy, yes, she of that face (that launched a thousand ships). However, the 24 years elapse and as the play draws to a denouement, Faustus is dragged to hell.

Ben Blyth was in the title role, both haunting and haunted as he vacillated between revelling in delicious sinfulness and a desire for God’s redemption. Blyth captured perfectly the essence of a man torn with this most desperate of struggles and was mesmerizing to watch. His opening soliloquy, which started in a hoarse whisper and crescendoed to a level only slightly above normal speech, made one feel simultaneously like spectator and confidant; his childish glee as he taunted the Pope was infectious and injected a comedic element to this darkest of dramatic visions.

Faustus is nowhere and no one without his Mephistophilis and Toby Parker Rees was thrilling, the master puppeteer of the whole outfit, his arch condescension sending shivers of terror that certainly weren’t to be mistaken for the shivers of one who ought to have worn more layers. His low tones rang sinister in the small church and the penetrating gaze he levelled at Faustus was enough to make one make a mental note to sort out that baptism your parents neglected to arrange, post haste.

Photos: Yi Sun

Alashiya Gordes, Victoria Ball and Caitlin Doherty must be commended not only for the number of roles they played but for the sheer brilliance with which they segued from one to the next, from the Seven Deadly Sins – the physical drama of this masque was superbly conceived and the timing faultless – to the Pope and his dignitaries, to a rasping, shaky Lucifer himself.

John Faustus is a metaphor for the universal condition, an expression of the nadir to which the human condition can plunge; the theatrical space was perfect for the intimacy that this play demands, and there is a delicious irony in the depiction of hell inside a church given the theological quagmire that this play presents. There was no ‘stage’ as such: two rows of chairs were arranged in a ‘U’-shape and in the ‘U’ was Faustus’ study. Lighting was basic, although the moment when pitch darkness lifts and Mephistophilis appears in the low lighting of a small stage lamp was just as impressive as any play with an infinite budget for all things luminous.

Something demands to be said also about Tom de Freston’s art, which formed part of the minimal set and engages with Renaissance iconography but viewed and represented through a secular, cynical lens. It was both perversely beautiful and entirely fitting with Attwood’s – and Marlowe’s – vision.

My only advice: put on a jumper and then put on another one for good measure. Maybe a thermos. Dr Faustus was utterly brilliant in its conception and performance. See this.