This may seem like an unreasonable number of superlatives, but believe me, I was prepared to be sceptical: the production simply refused to allow it. The conceit of a schoolboy Faustus seemed to me naïve and a little gauche when I first heard of it – and this impression was not allayed by the description of ‘naughty Faustus’ and the ‘school prefect’ in the programme’ – yet the finished production breathed modern life into essentially tired, Renaissance ideologies that are seemingly incompatible with a contempory audience.
The basic conceit is this: Faustus is a schoolboy obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to achieve both greatness and immortality, preferably equal to that of God. The playground bully and his gang tempt Faustus over to the dark side, and struggle against the goody-goody school prefect for the possession of his soul. Unlike the Star Wars/Lord of the Rings bad-against-good fables of today, there is no certainty that the good will win.
This production preserved the most powerful moments, from the much-quoted ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ to my personal favourite ‘See how Christ’s blood streams through the firmament: one drop would save me…’ Yet the director also manages to redeem the farcical elements which sit least easily with the remainder of the play. The anti-Catholic, Pope-mocking humour still seemed a little wooden to me, but the portrayal of the seven deadly sins was vastly entertaining, and the entirety of the play successfully portrayed the emptiness of the rewards of sin compared with those of salvation. This was mainly due to Oscar Wood’s impressive performance of Faustus, a memorable portrayal of the path from relative innocence to regrettable experience. Ewan Roxburgh’s serpentine Mephistophilis is also note-worthy, though the high standards of the performances of all the cast makes it seem almost a betrayal to single out any one actor. The staging is also particularly effective: the ‘den’ belonging to the devils is compellingly reminiscent of the remembered haunts of the school ‘cool kids’, whilst the claustrophobic atmosphere makes the audience feel a part of the playground, and thus partially implicated in Faustus’ descent into darkness.
I cannot recommend this highly enough: please, see it. You will not regret it.