Dr Faustus – Above the Arts, London

Writer: Venetia Twigg (adapted from Christopher Marlowe)
Director: Venetia Twigg
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Roll up! Roll up! The circus is in town. They’ve got neon puppets, comedy clowns, tightrope walking acrobats, and, for your entertainment, as a grand finale, the ringmaster will sell his soul to the devil.

tell-us-block_editedTheatrical Niche’s new production of Dr Faustus which opens Above the Arts in Covent Garden, reimagines Marlowe’s classic tale inside the Big Tent of a failing circus, but while they throw plenty of ideas into the mix, the resulting show undersells Marlowe’s famous tragedy.

Joan Faustus’ circus is losing customers rapidly and at the end of a poorly attended show, she asks them to return in six months. In the meantime, against the advice of her acrobat and clown, she summons the devil and sells her soul in order to enjoy 24 years of success before joining the damned in hell. But as soon as the deal is done, Joan begins to question the very validity of the pact and whether heaven and hell exist at all.

While Theatrical Niche is clearly an enthusiastic and innovative theatre company, who’ve attempted a bold interpretation of a very well-known story, this production never quite manages to reconcile its serious and comic elements, while failing to get under the skin of its leading lady. Despite its two-hour length, Venetia Twigg’s modern adaptation spends too little time on early exposition so Faustus’ reasons for selling her soul – because the circus is losing custom – seem weak and unlikely, requiring a little more explanation of what a hopeless position this is and why it becomes the last resort.

Throughout the tone is uneven, awkwardly juxtaposing elements that seem very serious as Faustus contemplates the value of her soul and the nature of religious belief, with the broadly comic portrayals of all the secondary characters that almost send this into parody. And in doing so, the circus setting is largely forgotten, as this Faustus rattles around Europe like an inter-railing teenager performing silly tricks for the Pope, the Empress of Germany and an Italian Duke – hardly the display of unrivalled power she claims. While this mirrors Marlowe’s plot by showing Joan wasting her talent and time, the theme would have been better served if the company could have demonstrated her magical gifts by devising wondrous new acts for the circus.

The most effective sections suggest the creeping presence of hell, which Nic Farman has created using a black light and Neon paint streaked over the actors that takes on a nicely sinister quality. Matthew Spingett’s Mephistophilis is a dark presence throughout, combining an intriguing wriggly movement with his fluid personality traits as he becomes charming, subservient and menacing in turn. Springett convinces throughout, bringing a depth to the role that seems lacking in the rest of the production.

Charlotte Watson is a suitably weak-willed Faustus, constantly afraid and introspective, but early on everything is pitched at quite a high emotional state, so it’s never clear what brought her to this ultimate sacrifice and if she even enjoyed any of it, but as the end beckons, Watson becomes more assured.

The supporting roles are not well-written and delivered by Alice Sillett and Rayo Patel with the same clownish manner that eventually just slows down the action and, while both clearly enjoy the physical comedy, more variety among these characters would allow them to show more range. Maia Kirkman-Richards supplies a disappointing number of puppets, just some hands and a large, skeletal lizard tht represents the devil; while these are well utilised, there were plenty of missed opportunities. Some of the practical joke scenes could have used puppetry rather than imagination, and some tiny damned souls scuttling about would add a greater sense of Faustus being overwhelmed by the pact.

There are lots of good ideas here but it is a bit of a mish-mash. For Theatrical Niche’s production to work, it needs to clarify its tone and try to build a more tangible sense of the building danger. It is a shame that so little use was made of the circus theme because its sinister overtones are a clever setting for Marlowe’s tale and have the potential to add something new to our understanding of this play.

Runs until 19 October 2016 | Image:

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