A wet and dreary evening set the scene for ShakeSoc’s opening night of ‘Doctor Faustus’, performed in the Chapter House at Exeter Cathedral. Its most impressive selling point, that the stage would be enveloped in the warm hue of candlelight, proved ironic when discovering that this part of the cathedral underwent severe fire damage in the 15th century. Thankfully, no fires broke out; rather, the audience was left with the chilling memory of Faustus, played by Ryan Bonner, and his descension to hell.
It is melodramatic in all the right places, but devilishly dark when it needs to be
The heavens opened with heavy downpours on Tuesday evening, perhaps in retaliation against the Cathedral’s sacred walls being used to perform scenes of devil summoning and negotiating with Lucifer. Nevertheless, adorning angel sculptures gazed upon the wicked, transgressive actions of Faustus. This only intensified the pleas of the Good Angel (Mimi Templar-Gay), whose words matched the angels’ lamenting faces.
Most noteworthy is Sax’s decision to cast Mephistopheles, the devil tied to Faustus, as a woman
The Cathedral setting also put utterances such as “divinity, adieu” into a much more sinister light. Equally disturbing was the blood which bound Faustus’s soul to Lucifer, which was spread across the cathedral floor, having been marked with satanic chalk etchings. This and the eerily candlelit stage meant that director Lydia Sax succeeded in her aim to “make the play as dark as possible”.
Most noteworthy is Sax’s decision to cast Mephistopheles, the devil tied to Faustus, as a woman, with Sax noting that “nothing in the play determined that Mephistopheles HAD to be male”. Coco Brown portrays her as a sexually liberated, leather-clad adjutant to Lucifer, which adds an innovative gendered dimension to the already complex dynamic between Mephistopheles and Faustus. A symbiotic relationship is suggested in the script, in which Mephistopheles “has [Faustus’s] soul” yet, to Faustus, she is “[his] slave”, but the performance hints at otherwise. Mephistopheles has Faustus sexually, physically and mentally wound around her finger. If we go with my speculation that the candles are a physical embodiment of Faustus’s soul (as the Good Angel attempts to keep them all lit, only to be blown out by the personified Seven Deadly Sins as he gets dragged to hell), then Mephistopheles is the arbiter to his soul, with her constant fixation and playing with said candles. Thus, Faustus’s introductory egotism, hedonism and pride (all encompassed in his smug smirk before his opening soliloquy) can so quickly be shrouded by the echoing thuds of Mephistopheles’s approaching stilettos on the cathedral floor.
…the Cathedral’s sacred walls being used to perform scenes of devil summoning and negotiating with Lucifer
Aforementioned sinister scenes were underpinned by the antics of Robin and Rafe (Sebastian Fage and Anna Lennon-Tarver). Although they parody the use of magic which Faustus uses for far worse intentions, their and Wagner’s (James Stevenson) modernising of the script provided comedic effect which, when interspersed throughout the play, delightfully juxtaposed with the dark, decrepit scenes featuring Faustus.
Interestingly, Stevenson played both Wagner, who is Faustus’s servant, and Lucifer. Although the role of Lucifer was overshadowed by Mephistopheles’s performance, his striking entrance from the cathedral doors behind the stage, as well as blood red lighting which tinged the white of Faustus’s suit, was all a sight to behold.
director Lydia Sax succeeded in her aim to “make the play as dark as possible”
I must give credit to the music: Ben Fleming on piano and Kanon Tsuda on violin provided a live, original score to compliment sombre moments without dialogue, or to enhance scenes which required additional tension. For example, the verging on choreographed dance sequence as Lucifer introduces the Seven Deadly Sins featured a cabaret inspired musical motif, and music grew aggressively dissonant as Faustus was dragged off to hell. However, I was left pining for a dance or musical number that was merely hinted towards in the Seven Deadly Sins; this could have been their chance to amp up the melodrama in an already sinister, uncanny scene.
That being said, ShakeSoc brought the 16th century Marlowe play back to life with its modernised, re-gendered twist. It is melodramatic in all the right places, but devilishly dark when it needs to be.