Arts > Theatre review: Doctor Faustus

Posted on October 18, 2017

Joe Marshall on a hellishly good piece of theatre

It’s Friday 13th, and a play about one man’s descent into evil is on at Chickenshed. Doctor Faustus is the classic tale of a learned scholar who sells his soul for 24 years of limitless power.

The protagonist is a highly educated, but jaded man, who believes he has found fundamental flaws which undermine all traditional fields of thought. He has becomes dismissive of intellectual pursuits, casting aside books on medicine, logic and law, in order to become a master of the esoteric art of magic.

Ashley Driver convincingly embodies the role of Faustus. He conveys someone with an academic nature, and boundless arrogance, even in the face of powerful evil. Mephistophilis acts as a channel of communication between the doctor and the devil. Actor Paul Harris puts in a strong, understated performance as the quietly menacing servant of Lucifer.

Faustus is given many opportunities to repent and turn away from the dark arts, but ultimately his inflated ego and hunger for power get the better of him. The audience can see Faustus’ terrible demise coming from a mile off. In his foolish self regard, he is blind to the fact that the devil will eventually claim his soul, and he will not be able to ask God for forgiveness or talk his way out of it.

There is a sense of malice and foreboding

The parading of the seven deadly sins is a definitive scene in the world renowned play. Chickenshed have put their own twist on it, with the devil performing a rap with a verse about each sin. As the personification of the evils of man, they are suitably grotesque and chilling.

Visually, this is a spectacular show. The devil appears bathed in red light, surrounded by masked creatures who creep and crawl at his feet. There is a sense of malice and foreboding, as if you are entombed inside the studio theatre, which has been transformed into a space somewhere between earth and eternal damnation.

There are conjouring tricks too. When Faustus travels to the Vatican, he levitates the Pope and causes books to fall from their shelves, spooking the religious leader. Chickenshed sought advice from three illusionists to produce these effects.

Comedy runs throughout the production. Rafe and Robin, a hapless clown and innkeeper, try to practise sorcery themselves, only to be turned into animals by Mephistophilis, who demands a higher level of competence and respect when he is summoned. In another scene, Faustus punishes a man who underestimates his powers by making him grow antlers.

Famous actor and director Sir Derek Jacobi voices the character of the Old Man, represented by a fantastical demonic puppet which lingers on the stage for just a moment, leaving the audience wanting more. At times, the language is too old fashioned to follow, but I always caught the jist of the plot.

This is a dark and morbid play. It deals with questions of the afterlife and the limits of our power as human beings. A central thread and lesson in Doctor Faustus is that you can have all the intelligence in the world, but if you are unable to apply it responsibly, it can be your undoing.

Doctor Faustus is on at Chickenshed until Saturday 21st October.

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshall is Exposure’s Arts & Culture Editor. With his written content he endeavours to raid the full remit of entertainment in London, if he doesn’t drown in it first. He aspires to make a career out of journalism like his heroes Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Jon Ronson before him.

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