Doctor Faustus, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Thursday 16 September 2010
Is Marlowe's Doctor Faustus a modern tragedy or a morality play?
Probing the drama's several levels without imposing any single meaning, Toby Frow's bold and engrossing production captures both possible interpretations. At its centre is Patrick O'Kane's exemplary Faustus, a commanding presence, seldom off-stage in a version based on the longer of the two editions, with Ian Redford's diabolical Mephistopheles modestly presented as a dog-collared clergyman. O'Kane knows how to pace each scene, drawing the audience into his 24-year journey of post-pact power and experiences on the road to damnation.
With a couple of dozen extras from the city's Metropolitan University Theatre School joining the 12-strong professional cast, there's no shortage of energetic athleticism in some devilish choreography, amid a heaving, fantasy landscape. In a pageant of gargoyle-like seven deadly sins, some sleight-of-hand hocus pocus surrounding the deeply corrupt pope and his cronies, and in a series of magic tricks, there's plenty of comic relief in what could otherwise seem like an impenetrably dense evening.
Ben Stones's circular library extends upwards and there's good use of the theatre's various levels, and its high central space for flying in and out supernatural characters. There's no lack of sensationalism, but neither is this Doctor Faustus played for its gimmicks or cheap laughs, though the conjuring of Gavin Marshall's Alexander the Great and the scholar's decapitation are all seamlessly carried off.
Evocatively costumed, mainly in period, the production benefits also from Richard Hammarton's spooky surround-sound. But it is in its teamwork that this vast enterprise, which could be reduced to even more manageable proportions without damage, succeeds. With almost everyone taking several roles, Frow shows amazing attention to detail and has clearly used his rehearsal time wisely. In a large supporting cast Gwendoline Christie stands out as Lucifer, while Stephen Hudson's Wagner and Ian Midlane's Pope add shades of colour to what is an atmospherically grey production brightened only by shafts of blood-red colour, most effectively as Faustus descends to his hellish grave.
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