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Manchester theatre reviews

Dr Faustus - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


Directed by Toby Frow, designed by Ben Stones

Wednesday 8 September – Saturday 9 October 2010

Reviewed by Mark Iddon and Anne Ryan

When Dr Faustus' desire for power and knowledge leads him to conjure up the demon Mephistopheles, he finds himself offered the ultimate bargain; he will be granted everything he desires for 24 years, but at the end of this time will have to hand his soul over to the devil.

An epic new production of a stunning and savage tragedy by Christopher Marlowe.


Mark Iddon writes:


FAUSTUS  ...Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four-and-twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand...

Dr. Faustus makes the above request of Lucifer, through his agent Mephistopheles, after summoning the devil through a spell from a book of necromancy. The story of Dr. John Faustus is about his making this pact, his antics during the twenty four year period and his subsequent encounter with Lucifer.


The play was written by Marlowe at around 1588-89, at a time when Elizabeth I had been ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. The story of Dr. Faustus addresses the theological debates of his day regarding an individual’s freedom of choice in whether some are chosen by God to be saved or those who will receive everlasting life through their belief in Christ. Was Faustus damned as sinner before entering into the pact or could he be redeemed by repenting and being cleansed of sin? The work was denounced by many critics of the time for its blasphemous questioning of the holy trinity and many critics since have imparted other meanings to the story of Faustus.


FaustusThe casting for this play is excellent, with Patrick O’Kane exhibiting a bold and confident stage presence as the protagonist. He is convincing as he ponders the achievements of his life, then quizzes Mephistopheles regarding his fall from grace and the whereabouts of hell. He is mischievous in his visitations of Alexander the Great, The Pope, Helen of Troy, The Archbishop of Rheims, The Emperor of Germany, a Horse Courser and others. He also portrays convincingly his sorrowful but dignified final encounter with the striking Lucifer, played by Gwendoline Christie. The supporting cast play wonderfully around him with many who are called upon to take multiple roles.


The set is effective with its sparsely furnished circular stage of a candle lit desk with old books to the perimeter and wooden panelling/bookcases to the first floor balcony and is to the usual high standards of the Royal Exchange Theatre. Set changes made by the devils, are slick, effective and unobtrusive to achieve continuity of performance. Good use is made of the height of the theatre space as Mephistopheles first appears from above as a grand and imposing dragon before appearing in the form of the more approachable old bearded priest, at Faustus’ request. In one scene, Lucifer elegantly descends from above the stage on a trapeze platform, whilst Beelzebub slithers acrobatically down a rope, in order to confront Faustus.


The seven deadly sins presented for Faustus’ amusement by Lucifer, are manifest in rather ugly cumbersome creatures which add to the range of stage props. Many tricks and illusions are utilised to demonstrate the magic powers of Faustus and an array of costumes are used to depict the places and people visited by Faustus during his journey. In the scene when Faustus signs his contract with the devil in his own blood, there is also the chaotic invasion of the stage by the urchin-like devils, in a disorderliness that is appropriate to the depiction of hell. The music and sound production are used to great effect from the opening eerie singing and throughout. The voices of the good and bad angel envelop the theatre space with their attempt to persuade the protagonist to their respective ways.


Although spoken in an Elizabethan English dialect, the presence of the devil with his fallen angels gives the impression of a play from history but this is very much a play of relevance to present day discussions and contemporary issues. Our politicians request that we live with austerity cuts and accept our lot urging that we all must pull together for the greater good. Meanwhile, the fat cat city bankers are no longer excused their privileged bonuses as a just reward for their expertise in wealth creation. Whether some people are naturally predisposed to evil or can be rehabilitated is another contemporary issue. Also, the irreverent mockery of the pontiff is cunningly coincidental to the first papal visit to the UK in 29 years, and chimes with the media’s current preoccupation.


Dr. Faustus is an entertaining performance in which the dialogue and theatrical magic illusions compensate for the lack of narrative. It is a morality tale for our time and suggests some very pertinent questions about today’s society. I would very much recommend going to see this production.


and Anne Ryan writes:

Wow! - Doctor Faustus, I presume?


Toby Frow's revival of Doctor Faustus, which has just opened at the Royal Exchange, is in one word ... theatrical!


From the opening angelic voice filling the library – in which we sit – to a feast of masks, magic, grotesque puppets and a riot of visual effects. The wonderful music of Richard Hammarton's is equally effective in contributing to the experience.

FaustusPatrick O'Kane, in the leading role, is equally flashy, a man drunk on his arrogance – in his arguments with Mephistopheles – one's money is often on the man over the Devil.


The story of a man willing to sell his soul for knowledge – or perhaps in the modern world for riches or fame – should cause us to think. And this may be one criticism of this production, we are so dazzled, we do not think – perhaps like Faustus we lose our way, overwhelmed by experiences. It is only in the quieter moments of the drama that we sense O'Kane's realisation of the consequences of his bargain.


Ian Redford brings a quiet dignity to the role of the Devil and his relationship with O'Kane is almost fatherly – perhaps he would break the bargain if he could, but a promise has been made. The rest of the cast – including 24 students from Manchester Metropolitan University, making this one of the Royal Exchange's largest productions – are somewhat overshadowed by the protagonists, but Coral Messam is a beguiling Helen of Troy.


It is a production where the creative technical team, headed by Ben Stones, are equal to the actors in producing a memorable theatrical experience. At the end – after all the sound and fury – we are left with the silence of the grave – all of Faustus's arrogant speeches have failed him.

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