Doctor Faustus
dir Andrea Ferran
11 to 15 October
Old Fire StationDoctor Faustus is getting dangerously close to becoming an unstageable play. Perhaps that makes it even more of a challenge; not simply to emulate, or experiment with, an iconic production, but to create one independently.
This production gamely rises to the challenge by following the popular dramatic trend of transplant-a-classic-into-a-modern-setting-to-facilitate-an-unexpected-social-commentary. The Satanic soul-seller is relocated from sixteenth century Germany to modern-day Africa, where the sumptuous ethnic design conveys the decadence of both Faustus’ intellectual excess and the extravagance of the high society he infiltrates with his dark arts. A giant summer tent of pink and orange muslin engulfs the stage, while the whole scene is presided over by a suitably monstrous tribal mask. The European influence is not entirely forgotten either, due to the innovative musical fusion of sacred choral music and tribal drumming, combined with Tom Richards’ portrayal of the Emperor as an ancient imperialist immersed in the culture of his colony.
All this imagination, and yet somehow the production is all a bit incoherent. Arguably, it is at odds with Marlowe’s very text which, rigidly confined to its own Christian framework, sits uncomfortably among the production’s chanting, drumming interpolations and invocations of African divinities but, probably more importantly, it is also at odds with itself. For a production that goes back to nature, an audience might justifiably expect the play to be staged and performed more naturally but this is an expectation that is disappointed and dispelled by the artifice of the performances.
Faustus is one of the great male roles that an actor should aim to add to his repetoire at a later, rather than earlier, age. Consequently, James Lea appeared, through no real fault of his own, to be overpowered by the daunting task of portraying a part that was just too big for him and with his antagonist, Mephistopheles, in the shape of a rather more formidable Fiona Ryan, he could not help but be upstaged. The pace of the major scenes was hindered by the dialogue which tended towards monotony and drone, but certain subtle directorial touches brought out particularly amusing characters, such as the omnipresent frown of Skye Blyth-Whitlock as the Empress, and the sarcastic smirk of Alex Black as a disdainful Cardinal. These moments were as refreshing as the unexpected and exciting swordfight between Vikki Orton’s Alexander and Rachael Williams’ Darius.
Director Andrea Ferran has always been one of the more adventurous directors in Oxford drama. Her readiness to infuse such a frequently performed masterpiece of the Elizabethan stage with new ideas is an all too rare example of what young directors should be attempting. Whether it works or not is a matter of opinion. Flaws aside, she has once again produced something which you’re unlikely to see another of, and whether that’s good or bad, it’s still unique.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005