Writers: Christopher Marlowe/Johann Wolfgang von Goethe/Czech Puppet Company/Vaclav Havel
Director: Kevin Johnson
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
“Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me,” says Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play, and I challenge anyone not to be beguiled by the black magic of this young company’s adaptation.
The Actor’s Wheel is a touring theatre training company linked to the University of St Mark and St John in Plymouth, and watching them perform is like stepping into a dream. The Cygnet stage is already set as you walk into the auditorium: dirty, ragged sheets are strung from a scaffolding structure, surrounded by the packing cases, boxes, props and paraphernalia of a touring circus. Accompanied by an eerie soundtrack of requiem music and medieval hymns, the circus performers move in slow motion: a tarot reader sits musing over her cards, a fortune-teller gives a flirtatious smile; a clown catches my eye and glowers menacingly. Two girls sit back-to-back in a mirror image of each other, gazing curiously around the audience.
Into this place of limbo wanders a young man in a business suit, carrying a laptop case. This seemingly innocuous man becomes the figure through which the cast begin to tell the story of Doctor Faustus. The play text is a collage taken from various incarnations of the Faustus story including Marlowe’s play and Goethe’s Faust, and the 18-strong company shares the lines so they bounce ethereally around the stage, surrounding Faustus and voicing his conflicting thoughts as he contemplates the power of the devil.
Rather than cunning or ambitious, Kyle Telford plays Faustus as a dreamer, a philosopher whose quest for knowledge goes too far. Telford’s honest blue eyes (he bears a striking resemblance to Eddie Redmayne) are wide with hopes as he speaks the Latin chant that will summon Mephistopheles to him. Lighting and sound combine effectively with staging in the summoning scene: Telford kneels in a circle of sawdust as the stage glows red and yellow, and hands and limbs begin to appear from within the scenery to the music of electric guitars – the circus troupe have become the inhabitants of hell.
Thomas Bowdler’s Mephistopheles seems to ooze around the stage: he has a swagger mixed with comic campness that suggests a deeply unstable mind. Bowdler giggles manically as he leads Faustus into hell and debauchery, but is most creepy in his moments of silence which he extends skilfully, keeping us on edge as long as possible about what is coming next.
Both Telford and Bowdler give strong performances, but where this production truly excels is in its use of physical ensemble performance. With only the help of painted masks and lengths of cloth, the company creates the figures of the seven deadly sins with their own bodies: Gluttony is a slobbering, leering mass of actors licking their lips and snorting like pigs, while Greed leans and presses close against Faustus, reaching for his wealth and treasures. The sheer power of these performers moving as one makes Faustus a unique theatre experience.
The absolute highlight is when Faustus flies around the globe “upon a dragon’s back, that with his wings did part the subtle air.” Lifted up by the other cast members, Telford floats as if on water or a cloud, turns cartwheels in slow motion in the air, and falls from standing on the shoulders of a group of spirits seamlessly into the arms of others. This is what theatre is all about: the spectacle of this man balancing and swooping with no ropes or structures, only the movement of his fellow cast members, is absolutely breathtaking.
The Actor’s Wheel shows exceptional potential: every single cast member is utterly engaged in bringing the story to life. There are no weak links and each performer brings something unique to the play, despite the fact that there are only two named characters. Each time you think they must be running out of ideas, the next scene surprises you still further; the ending is close to perfectly devised by director Kevin Johnson and is guaranteed to make this production one you won’t forget in a hurry. Don’t miss your chance to see it.
Reviewed on Thursday 21st May 2015 and touring in the South West.