THEATRE / Hell, on earth and elsewhere: Dr Faustus / Little Murders

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The Independent Culture
When Marlowe's Faustus quizzes Mephistopheles about Hell, the devil replies that it is not a place but the torture of knowing his own damnation. In Jules Feiffer's 1967 satire Little Murders, Hell is New York City and, dammit, its inhabitants like it.

In the world of Dr Faustus the wage of sin is eternal damnation. In Little Murders Carol Newquist tries to bribe the minister even to mention 'the Deity' in his daughter's wedding ceremony. The Reverend Dupas' First Existential Church in Greenwich Village has a sign reading 'Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?' Dupas is a magnificent comic creation, anointed inches thick with smarm in Philip Bird's excellent portrayal.

In Feiffer's view he is the appropriate pastor for the moral anarchy symbolised by New York. Amid power cuts and gunfire, the Newquists are trying to live a normal family life. Not that they are surprised to have daughter Patsy marry an 'apathist' hippy who lets muggers beat him up. This parody Christ, however, eventually flips, and in the gun-crazed finale does not so much harrow Hell as join in the fun. The play's basic New York joke is passe now, but Gregory Hersov's production at the Royal Exchange is funny and superbly acted.

Meanwhile, back in the 16th century, metaphysics are alive and well in Brigid Larmour's version of Dr Faustus for Contact Theatre. In Simon Banham's fine setting the ladder between heaven and hell cuts through floor and ceiling. Virtue, represented by Anni Domingo's striking Good Angel, is blind, painfully bound to the floor she sweeps and at the end barely able to inch her way up to Paradise. Evil, by contrast, is swift and limber in Alison Fielding's lithesome Evil Angel and James Durrell's Mephistopheles as he flickers between earth and air on a trapeze.

Unfortunately, Sean Cranitch's Faustus disappoints. He has plenty of orthodox vocal power, and is ambitiously expressive at the end. But he looks too cherubic for the mature master for whom the whole sum of human knowledge has grown tedious, and he does not age as the years of his indentured libertinism expire.

'Little Murders' runs to 8 May (box office: 061-833 9833), then touring until July (details: 061-833 9333). 'Dr Faustus' runs until 8 May (061-274 4400).