Doctor Faustus

HANNAH MIRSKY was impressed by the acting, but the production wasn’t up to scratch.

Cambridge Arts Theatre Cambridge Theatre charlie merriman Drew Mulligan Emma Powell Faustus marlowe society

Cambridge Arts Theatre, 7.30pm, 29th Jan – 1st Feb, £12.50/£15

When Satan comes onstage in rose-tinted glasses and lights a cigarette in an impossibly sinister manner, you know you’re onto something good. This production of Doctor Faustus can be gloriously creepy. The acting is excellent. The humour is, for the most part funny. It’s a shame that a show with so many good qualities is let down by patchy attempts at concepts, which add nothing to the play, and at times, spoil your enjoyment completely.

But first, the good. Emma Powell as Mephistopheles gives a devilishly (sorry!) creepy performance as Mephistopheles. Decked out in classy suits, she remains cold but compelling, tempting Faustus without ever showing a glimmer of warmth. Charlie Merriman is equally engaging as the titular doctor, making the novel decision to portray him as affable and awkward towards the start of the play, but developing him into something much more desperate and tragic. During his final soliloquy, I couldn’t look away. There are no weak links in the supporting cast, but it is the quality of these two central performances that stands out.

Emma Powell and Charlie Merriman in rehearsal (credit: Chris Rowlands)

Equally enjoyable are the spine-chilling moments of devilry that are sprinkled through the play. Not only is there the bespectacled smoker of a Satan, but demons with long gnarled horns, their faces covered with balaclavas. The scene when Mephistopheles first appears, in non-human form, has a huge writhing shadow filling the stage, and  Faustus spluttering in terror. Only the use of a Helena Blair and Maria Pawlikowska as the good and evil angel reveals a less engaging way of staging the supernatural. One is in a pale blue dress, one in red. One speaks sweetly, and one rasps. I don’t think I need to tell you which was which: it seemed a little unoriginal.

This production also makes the bold decision to try to draw as much comedy as possible out of this famous tragedy. Sometimes this works wonderfully: Faustus and Mephistopheles playing practical jokes on an order of monks results in an honestly hilarious scene. By contrast, the humour of the purely comic characters, Robin and Rafe, sometimes seems a little too pantomime for the show they’re in, with characters missing each other as they rush in and out of doors, and having slapstick fights.

But while the humour is patchy, this is not the reason why the whole production feels as though it doesn’t quite add up. The director, Drew Mulligan, has made the decision to set this production in 1951, a notion that doesn’t seem to add anything to the audience’s understanding of the play, and is never properly explored. All it means is they get to play some nice jazz sometimes.

Even worse is the decision to use an unnecessary framing device in which the audience sees the 1950s actors preparing for the show. Not only does the framing device not map on to the play itself – different actors play different parts – the dialogue is stilted, the characters uninteresting, and it doesn’t tell you anything about Doctor Faustus.

While it is introduced at the start and doesn’t appear again until the very end, you spend the whole play with a worry in the back of your mind that those awful 50s actors will come back and ruin everything. As a spectacle, this show has so much to offer, but as an interpretation of Marlowe’s play, it doesn’t quite seem to add up.