Review: Doctor Faustus

Jungmin Seo 22 May 2019
Image Credit: Katey Parker @ Facebook

★★★★

“This is hell, nor am I out of it”, says Faustus’ conjured devil, Mephistopheles. In Atlanta Hatch’s modern adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy, Doctor Faustus, hell is really something else. It’s more than a place – it’s an experience: a nightmarish, neon-fuschia, glowstick disco featuring an entrancing electronic back-track. As the chorus swarm onto the stage, dressed all in black, scouring the audience with their ‘sunglassed’ eyes, they break into a hypnotizingly jagged dance routine. Their limbs jerk in uncomfortable synchronisation; they stamp their feet in rhythmical off-beats.

You might not be expecting outbursts of jazz-funk choreography in a 16th century play about a young German scholar (Faustus) who uses magic to summon a devil (Mephistopheles) promising 24 years of supernatural vice in exchange for deferred perpetual damnation. But then again, this Corpus Playroom production is a modernisation: Lara Cosmetatos’ Faustus encounters Mephistopheles as a result of her virtual reality headset, rather than through her study of necromancy. The juxtaposition is a little jarring at first, but as the texture of Marlowe’s original language merges with Aidan Tulloch’s syncopated synth-track, Cosmetatos’ soliloquy verges on a surreal but surprisingly fitting rap sequence. Her Faustus is truly impressive: her facial expressions and her candid laughter successfully convey her character’s every emotion, ranging from arrogance to excitement to sheer horror.

At first, I had some doubts about the extravagant fancy-dress costumes – Lucifer’s shimmering tinsel-curtained cloak, the Pope’s flimsy hat and toga, and a collection of recognizably Cambridge gowns, to name a few. These flamboyant additions were a little distracting at times, but they managed to heighten the disorienting and dizzying qualities of this night-club-hell. In short, a potential ‘prop-overdose’ was redeemed by the compelling acting.

The entire cast fully embrace the demands of physical drama, making effective use of the stage as they leap and crawl around the metallic barrels. Anastasia Joyce’s acting bears a terrifyingly creepy resemblance to Mephistopheles as she drags her body across the floor before unexpectedly pouncing on Faustus, snarling wickedly. Vee Tames’ Lucifer is equally powerful, cackling and shrieking with fiendish candour. This is an unsettling, but mesmerising hell.

So, as Faustus asks, “What means this show?” I’ve never seen a production quite like Doctor Faustus at Cambridge. It’s highly experimental and ambitious, as it seeks to revivify an Elizabethan tragedy through a distinctly modern web of choreography, music and lighting. There were some moments when sounds interfered with delivery, but this is arguably another part of the chaos of the play. It might not necessarily be your ‘kind of theatre’, but there’s no denying that it’s done well – devilishly well.