THEATRE / A donation to clarity: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews a stripped-down Dr Faustus at the Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster

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The Independent Culture
MARLOWE'S Dr Faustus has a great beginning, a fine ending, but precious little in between. It is entirely understandable, then, that what is now thought to be a heavily adapted and extended version of the play concocted in the early 1600s has had so much currency. Even in its slimmer, more austere 1590s version, such scenes as Faustus' Invisible Man japes at the Papal court offer the modern director a much-needed opportunity to fill things out.

At the Dukes, Jon Pope does not have the wherewithal to populate the cosmos, but it is clearly not only those circumstances that have informed the clean lines of a production achieved with a cast of only four. He focuses with minimum distraction upon Faustus himself. The production begins and ends in the brightest, most unremitting light, illuminating the stark reality of his position.

In Pope's own set design, Faustus inhabits a surgically white, box-like world, though one that is threateningly invaded by tendril stains creeping downwards from a grand but dilapidated cornice. Sandy Welch is a mandarin figure, a polished patrician in a three- piece suit, at the peak of every profession. Janet Amsden's Mephistopheles opposes him reluctantly. She is an agonised figure; those parts of the role which sorrow over Lucifer's rebellion and feel Hell to be a timeless and ubiquitous desolation are emphasised here.

For the lines 'O Faustus, leave these frivolous demands / Which strike a terror to my fainting soul,' she flings Faustus to the ground and pins him there with the urgent desperation born of her own torment. It is a surprising challenge to see the play done from such a distinctly Christian viewpoint. This is a Faustus we want to see brought to his knees (which he is rather too often, actually), a complacent self-seeker rather than the heroic challenger to harsh theocracy. So far from gaining any satisfaction as Faustus fades into Hell, this Mephistopheles, in a pietistic parody, is seen clutching the foot of the huge crucifix.

So the stripped quality of Jon Pope's production is in the interest of something clear to say, and the lines themselves are delivered with thoroughgoing lucidity. Animating the stage sometimes proves more of a problem. Not all the essays into stylisation work, and in particular the background gesturing of the two angels often looks affected. But all those deadly sins are contained in a cardboard box and skilfully conjured forth by Beatrice Comins' Angel. Some are brilliantly clever symbolisations - a stuffed bird for covetousness, a garrotte for gluttony. Helen of Troy too underlines the character of Faustus' corrupt misapprehension. She comes out of a bucket, a shrunken head with wet red hair. His belief that this horror can make him immortal with a kiss makes the best moment of this interesting and thoughtful production.

Continues until November 14 (Box office: 0524 66645).

(Photograph omitted)