“Our Faustus is the show Marlowe wanted.” Director Cai Jauncey’s claim is a bold one, and I arrived at Somerville College eager to see whether the much-discussed production, which will open at the O’Reilly in 5th week, could possibly live up to the hype. Jauncey has been consistently committed to an interpretation in which Marlowe’s words “remain central to what we stage” (unlike the recent Jamie Lloyd adaptation, which changed the middle entirely and was almost universally panned by critics), but this hasn’t stifled their creative vision in the least. Though the pronouns remain the same, this production explicitly places Faustus (Georgie Murphy) as a brilliant female scientist struggling to realise her ambitions whilst contending with a notoriously sexist STEM industry, eventually turning to some tellingly corporate devils for assistance.
Chief among these is Mephistopheles (Thea Keller), who becomes Faustus’s personal demon in exchange for the scholar’s soul when their twenty-four year contract has ended. After starring in Cashiered last term – his first ever experience with university drama – Keller has once again been propelled into a starring role, and proven himself to be more than up to the task, bringing out the nuances of Mephistopheles’s character with great success. He is proud and self-satisfied, but beneath the unruffled, smooth-talking exterior (Jauncey describes him as “Lucifer’s personal assistant”) lies a clear capacity for frustration, brutality, and perhaps something more human. Georgie Murphy’s Faustus, for her part, wants to trust him – their relationship is rife with sexual and romantic tension, though the extent to which any of it is real on her devil’s side remains uncertain. The two play off of each other perfectly, and their dynamic will no doubt prove one of the show’s greatest assets.
Other members of the cast are equally compelling. In particular, the Good and Evil Angels, played by Anusia Battersby and Laura O’Driscoll respectively, are a welcome departure from the usual over-the-top take on the characters, who spend the duration of the play appealing to Faustus to save or damn him; by their final scene together, Battersby’s Good Angel is unimpressed rather than imploring. Interestingly, Jauncey has decided to downplay their divine nature, to the point where it is only then that they tell their Faustus, “This is the first time you realise who the people buzzing in your ears are.”
It is here – when everything comes crashing down – that Georgie Murphy truly excels. She is sympathetic in her fear and distress (not always an easy feat when depicting the arrogant, self-destructive Faustus), and her final monologue is genuinely moving. This may not be the show Marlowe had in mind, with its focus on science at the expense of religion, but that is by no means a shortcoming. If the rest of the play lives up to this skilful handling of its denouement, it will be an exciting and innovative update not to be missed.