Review: Four of Swords perform Dr Faustus

Review: Four of Swords perform Dr Faustus

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Christy Ku, Online Books Editor, reviews a new production of the classically devilish play by Christopher Marlowe

Faustus, a learned scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, is tired of wasting his talents. When his companions Valdes and Cornelius encourage him to sell his soul to the devil, his life takes a dark and damned turn.

Dr Faustus – one of Marlowe’s most famous plays and a personal favourite of mine. Therefore, seeing a promenade performance of this demon and dark magic filled tale on a cold evening was the perfect build up to Halloween.

St Nicholas Priory served as their stage, a gorgeous 900 year-old building and absolutely perfect for the play, and it was used well for the first act. The magical atmosphere was set when we were first led out to the garden, gathering under the trees and fairy lights as a guitarist played lute-style music. Afterwards, we went into a wonderfully grand dining room laid out with food (sadly not real). We travelled to Faustus’ smoke-filled study where the summoning happened, before travelling upstairs for the second act. The last half of the play alternated between Faustus’s bedroom and a large room with benches, which unfortunately made me feel trapped upstairs.

It was a small but strong cast. Dr Faustus (played by Philip Kingslan John) looked perfect; the mad hair and beard of an unkempt scholar with a great costume including a rather spectacular waistcoat. There was a good twist when it turned out that one of our audience was in the cast. In the smoky study where she got ‘possessed’ by Mephistopheles, the lady opposite me was pinching the sides of her nose and groaning quietly. If I was next to her, I would have whispered if she was ok and if the smoke was affecting her – and received the surprise of my life when she collapsed onto the floor. Emily Carding used very physical acting to play Mephistopheles, twisting and contorting around. The costume change was impressively fast. She transformed from blonde-lady-in-a-leather-coat to demon with full body and face makeup, headgear and foot-long claws within a few minutes.

Wagner (Sarah White) was our guide, leading us about the house and delivering several monologues. Valdes (Matt Lawrenson) and Cornelius (Richard Pullman) provided slapstick comedy and played off each other well but, to be frank, had terrible German accents. The guitarist/good angel (Mike Gilpin) provided the music in a medieval style and set the atmosphere perfectly.

There were some clever and effective tricks – in the dining room Wagner, Faustus’ servant, read aloud from one of the magical texts, and a stack of books on the table suddenly collapsed onto the floor. As Hell opened, the curtains right next to me pulled back by themselves. When Faustus cut his arm for the blood to flow down into the vessel, I wasn’t sure whether he was crushing something in his hand or if it was triggered by his bracelet. I couldn’t quite figure out how these effects were done, which helped with the immersion in the play. Also, when Faustus was being taken away, the previous song being played by the musician was played backwards which made the final scene very creepy. Demons crawled out from hell with masks just on the top of their heads which looked extremely uncanny. As they crept amongst us, I was desperately hoping they wouldn’t touch me.

Wonderfully spooky and weird, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world they had created.

Christy Ku, Online Books Editor

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