David Trimble, our
For a play concerned with hell, the result was really rather heavenly. As a text alone, I think Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has a lot of issues and, personally, I think it is a wildly overrated play. Watching Alexander Gillespie and Bennett Bonci’s superb production all my individual qualms disappeared. I can say with confidence that this is one of the best productions I have seen so far in St Andrews.
Performing the play in promenade was an idea that worked very well. Not only did it allow quick movement from scene to scene and a variety of sets (the pentagram was especially evocative), it brought the audience closer to what was happening. It was consistently effective and I had difficulty viewing only one scene. The close proximity made it feel like we, the viewers, were entering into the pact with Faustus (Noah Liebmiller), at the very least, we all stood by and allowed him to silently give his soul to the devil. As we walked round, following the events of the play as they unfolded, we were treated to a feast for the eyes. The visuals were hellishly good. Looming over the whole production was a huge, wooden cross with the words ‘Homo fuge’ inscribed at the top. Always salvation and the chance to fly away hovers over his actions; a nice visual representation of the opportunity he has until the end to repent. The table in the centre with its constantly flickering candle was another nice touch and kept up the suitably gothic feel whilst also suggesting the light was in reach until the end when it went out. I have already mentioned the pentagram which set the stage for a lot of the more demonic scenes. One such scene was the appearance of Lucifer (Jack Briggs) flanked by his devilish cohorts and presenting a grotesque carnival show of the seven deadly sins. This was one of the best scenes for its use of space, its comedy and its darkness. Hell, ironically, has rarely been presented so disturbingly. Another was the conjuring of Mephastophilis (Jared Liebmiller), performed like an extract from a Frankenstein movie, the demon rising from dead limpness to stilted life from a metal table straight out of a victorian laboratory via some guts and incantations. The creature standing with a bag on its head like the living dead was truly horrible and its hobbling on and off like something not quite human was constantly unnerving.
If the horror of hell was there, then it was definitely balanced by some divine comedy. Whether it was Jamie Jones as a devil in fishnets or Alice Gold’s Emperor enthusiastically surveying Alexander the Great (Jack Briggs)’s physique, this play excelled in the comedy. One of the highlights was a wonderful little montage which lit up the screens allowing the action to feel a little more like it was taking place over 24 years. The cut-scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street and The Simpsons mixed with some amusing photos of Noah Liebmiller set to “Sympathy for the Devil” (of course) drew some of the best laughs from the audience and continued to shake up this Faustian experience. The funniest scenes for me were the scenes with Robin and Dick, played with great comic timing by Jemima Tysson Smith and Becca Schwarz. The cup scene was particularly funny, the ‘We look not like cup-stealers’ pose especially.
But, Faustus is first and foremost a tragedy, and it is in the tragical scenes that it proved to be at its most powerful. The final moments were haunting and full of beautifully drawn images like the grotesque inhabitants of hell wreathed in a red smoke, Faustus dancing with Helen (Hannah Ritchie) and the final, terror-stricken beats when Faustus realises that all the time he has been waltzing to Mephastophilis’ tune and he is gone too far to be saved. The final moment was spine-chilling and worked superbly: a very good use of casting twins (that is all I am saying).
And so, to finish, I cannot leave without praising Noah and Jared Liebmiller for their roles as Faustus and Mephastophilis respectively. Jared’s quiet puppet-master with an eerily dead look underneath the devil mask was terrifying. His quiet control was well conveyed and his delivery of the famous ‘Why this is hell’ speech would put the fear of God into you. Noah’s opportunity seeking Doctor with little eye for the future was, contrastingly, all too human. Noah made him the everyman in all of us, seeing opportunity for power and pleasure without realising that there are consequences. And at the end all we can be is sympathetic, because we could have done the same. And the rest of the cast were by no means overshadowed. Performances that were particularly of note were Hannah Ritchie’s Wagner, Jack Briggs’ Lucifer and Alice Gold’s Emperor, but the cast as a whole worked incredibly well together.
It seems a real cop-out to spend a whole review praising a play but my complaints are so small that there is not much point mentioning them. This was an original production that constantly surprised and I can only conclude that Bennett Bonci, Al Gillespie and the rest of the production team have worked some devilish magic.