Doctor Faustus is in essence a drama about that familiar figure in literature, an over-reacher; a man consumed by overweening ambition to break free of the enduring moral laws of the universe. This ambition in the end is shown to be composed of dust rather than sinew since his desires turn out to be tragically trivial – disrupting feasts, importing grapes from the far side of the world – rather than anything grandiose. As is the case with many a good tragic hero, Faustus is essentially his own antagonist, hardly needing bad influences from the outside. His blindness is demonstrated in his words: 'sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss', when he's in the very act of sacrificing his true immortality, while the mythological parallels he goes on to cite – Semele and Arethusa - are apt comments on the fate of those who aspire beyond the human condition.
For this 00Productions show, Alice Penrose has designed a thoughtfully complex set, one's eye first settling on Faustus' book-lined study, the volumes artfully set in some disorder on the shelves, commenting subtly on the disordered state of mind of their owner. The room was backed by scaffolding extending the width of the stage, surmounted by a steel platform with, at its one end, a blackboard bearing astrological and alchemical symbols, and topped by a sundial-like clock counting down Faustus' remaining years and then hours on this earth. This was a creative stroke, backed up by the late-on pyrotechnical detonations courtesy of master-of-all-trades Harvey Dovell, whose participation in a production all but guarantees quality.
Henry Waddon as Faustus was interestingly febrile at the start and throughout conveyed convincingly a sense of angst and ultimately the panic that seizes him when, in a thrilling ending, sound, light and the imagination throbbing, he comes to his awful fate. This is a super-demanding rôle, not least owing to the number and length of his soliloquies, and if the beauty of the famous: 'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships' and following 19 lines wholly eluded him, there was much to admire elsewhere, not least in the variety of his pacing. As a terrific Mephistophilis, Gemma Daubeney was feline and malevolent, winningly spinning the net in which her victim is all too easily enmeshed, repeatedly and ominously calling him 'my Faustus'. She moved about the stage with graceful ease, impressive in speaking seemingly quietly but with considerable carry.
The cast of 15 or so has never a weak link. I especially enjoyed Gavin Fleming with stentorian voice, standing high and mighty on the platform as Lucifer in silver, gold and black cloak, Jamie Walker's dishevelled Benvolio, and Caroline Taylor as a warmly-spoken Chorus. The demons are a gaggle of serpentine, tortured beings - plausibly denizens of hell on day release - seeking to gather Faustus in, like a picked strawberry, as one of their own. These were transposed versions of the celebrated sculpted devils above the abbey door at Conques in SW France.
When we add in subtle lighting effects from Will Hayman, delicately picking out individual bookcases and the clock above, and music by Andrew Orr that was gently but disturbingly pulsating, we have quality visual and aural backing for Amelia Rogers' direction. This was always careful and often inspired. She told me she's been involved in drama for just eight months. With such limited experience, for her just to marshal a force of 35+ in a major production would be feat enough; to take a difficult Renaissance play, make an amalgam of Marlowe's 'A' and 'B' texts and turn the whole thing into an absorbing spectacle is a simply astonishing achievement.
Strongly recommended this week.