Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, June 2011

“For vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood. The date is expired, the time will come, and he will fetch me”. Thus speaks Faust in the final scene. The scholars seek to save him, but the clock strikes eleven and he has but one hour to live before being carried off by the fiends of hell.

Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles, all photos by Keith Pattison

Yet in those four-and-twenty years there were good times a-plenty, spent with Mephistopheles his comrade in magic and trickery. Eventually Faust conjures up Helen of Troy to save him, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen make me immortal with a kiss”.

Good angel, bad angel and Faust

The famous phrase that starts this plea for life eternal is Christopher Marlowe’s. He is the author of this play that mixes comedy with scenes of serious intent, as when we see the torture of Giordano Bruno, whose bloodied body is punched on stage, before one of his eyes is gouged out. This is the Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who went beyond the Copernican view of the solar system to see the earth as just one inhabited planet in a mighty universe, and was badly mauled by the Church of Rome. His treatment served as a useful warning to Galileo who felt compelled to recant his scientific views in 1632, knowing full well that Bruno had been burned at the stake in the year 1600. Galileo was born the same year as Christopher Marlowe (1564), but Marlowe died in 1593, infamously killed in a brawl. Yet here in this play, possibly performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men in 1588, we see the beginning of the end for Bruno. And while Marlowe shows us a great scholar being abused on stage, he also allows that great fictional scholar, Faust to make a fool of the Pope. He and Mephistopheles impersonate some visiting cardinals, creating enormous confusion, and with Mephistopheles’ help Faust becomes invisible so as to play games with the Pope and his henchmen.

Wagner stands by as Faust opens the magical book

Then there are the magical transformations, where people are turned into stags, apes and dogs — all wittily done, and the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins is an occasion for enormous fun. At one point, Faust is decapitated by someone wielding a sword, yet he suddenly reconnects his head, terrifying his opponents. This production by Matthew Dunster delivers an array of magical effects, helped by Paul Wills’s excellent designs. There are giant figures from hell, along with ordinary folk caught up in the action, and I loved the costumes for this Rabelaisian world of characters, including a good angel, a bad angel, Lucifer the prince of hell, the Pope, cardinals, and heaps more.

Richard Clews as Dick with monsters from hell

Paul Hilton as Doctor Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles were suitably energetic and well matched, even to the extent of looking almost identical, and in the less major parts I liked Felix Scott as Faust’s servant, Wagner, and Pearce Quigley’s comic timing as Robin. The diction was good, though when the delightful looking Beatriz Romilly first rushed on stage as the good angel, I understood not a word she was saying, but things warmed up later and the clarity of speech was fine, at least from my seat in the middle balcony. As for the crowd in the standing area, they looked to be in rapt attention at this entertainment, watching a sparkling performance of Christopher Marlowe’s most well-known play for a mere five pounds. Better value cannot be had in London.

Performances continue until October 2 — for details click here.

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