Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Director: Martin Parr
Reviewer: James Bartholomeusz
The Puritans never much liked the theatre; it was licentious, disrupted the social order, and – worst of all – lured churchgoers away to districts rife with gambling, prostitution, drinking and violence. The attempts in the second half of the 16th Century to keep London free from such evils led to the establishment of some of England’s first permanent theatres south of the Thames, just beyond the city limits of the capital. This really was Theatreland, hosting the work of the greatest playwrights of the day: Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and of course, Christopher Marlowe.
This year sees the 450th anniversary of Marlowe’s birth. It also sees a drive to excavate and reconstruct the Rose Playhouse, the original theatre space of Marlowe’s Admiral’s Men. To commemorate this, the Rose is running a season of new adaptations of the playwright’s work, beginning with his pinnacle achievement, Doctor Faustus.
I will lay my cards on the table: Faustus is my favourite play in the English language, and probably the one I’ve seen performed most times in my life. And I can claim with confidence that the current version running at the Rose is the best I’ve ever seen. Following in a great London fringe tradition of one-man shows, Christopher Staines’ performance brings Marlowe back to life in the very space Faustus was first performed over four centuries ago.
Like so much Renaissance theatre, the plot is hardly original, but it is the form and realisation which so transfix the audience. Faustus, a learned scholar of Wittenberg in Germany, tires of his achievements and seeks to surpass his mortal limits. Discarding logic, science and law (roughly, the three categories of knowledge recognised in the classical world) and his Bible, he turns instead to sorcery, summoning the demon Mephistopheles. A blood-pact with Lucifer leaves him with superhuman powers for twenty-four years, after which time he will face eternal damnation.
What can make Faustus so difficult to produce is its cosmic reach: one scene we are in the Vatican, enjoying the magic tricks played on buffoonish cardinals; the next Helen of Troy bestrides the stage, with her face “that launched a thousand ships | And burned the topless towers of Ilium”. Martin Parr’s adaptation solves this by minimalism, sitting Faustus before us on a bare, darkened stage and allowing Marlowe’s supreme word-craft to work on its own. Ingeniously, the excavated site of the Playhouse is put to use, strewn with candles flickering over water in the background, with Staines at one point leaping across them as he describes his supernatural feats. The adlibbed middle section of which this forms a part, which could have destroyed the entire performance in lesser hands, is pulled off with astounding panache.
The Rose has staged a performance which truly does justice to Marlowe’s memory. I cannot recommend this production highly enough, and I greatly look forward to the rest of the season.
Photo: Robert Piwko
Runs until 28th February