Review: Doctor Faustus @ The Bike Shed

Devious schemes were afoot in Wittenberg this week, but conveniently relocated to the Bike Shed Theatre basement, perhaps the only suitable setting in Exeter for such a disturbing unfolding of alchemic events. Magic, theology and torment are brought to ferocious heights in Tangle’s reimagining of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Tangle are the South West’s African Caribbean Theatre Company, who crafted a production that defies superficial spectacle and focusses instead on claustrophobic passion.

The incredibly small cast of three brought together an eclectic, at times hilarious, at times terrifying, ensemble of characters. Constantly within the view of the audience, the actors changed parts often within a matter of seconds, and each time executed this in original and well-defined ways to the extent that the progression of the story was rendered seamless. For me, the stand-out performance was that of Mogali Masuku, who in the course of 90 minutes had very little to do, only playing the parts of the demon Mephastophilis, the comic servant Rafe, Faustus’ colleague Valdes, an angel of temptation, Alexander the Great, the Deadly Sins (all seven of them), and Helen of Troy. Oh, and Lucifer himself. To condense such conflicting characters, especially of an Elizabethan drama, is a rare and not-at-all mean feat. Equally impressive in this regard was Munashe Chirisa, who brought the greatest level of comic relief to the play, regularly leaving the audience in hysterics with his antics.

What was perhaps most singular about the performance was its reappropriation of a text so embedded within European culture – director Anna Coombs draws out the commonality of the play, and demonstrates how applicable it still is in a contemporary and diverse society. The most striking method utilised to achieve this effect was the singing in Southern African languages interspersed with the Latin chanting of the text. The ritual of the English Renaissance, along with its spirituality and turbulence, is shown to be one of universal understanding. The production inverts the canonical and would-be traditional aspects of the play to make a statement about the extent to which art can, and does, transcend ethnicity and borders.

Although the play is presented within the paradigms of European Christianity, the themes of greed and temptation are evidently applicable worldwide, and throughout all of history. Faustus, portrayed with convincing malleability by Joshua Liburd, is wracked by the limits of his capabilities. He feels that he has reached the extent of human knowledge that he can achieve as a respectable alchemist, so is drawn into a world of dark arts that he does not truly comprehend. Repeatedly he blindly follows the advice of others – his friends and demons – without considering the consequences of his actions. Perhaps the most deflating aspect of his character is that once he has signed his soul over to the Devil, and gained the power of the demon Mephastophilis, he proceeds only to seek out personal gain. This is the point at which the confined space of the Bike Shed’s basement comes best into play. Whilst in a larger theatre, the audience might relax into a state of vague appreciation of the characters and situations being presented to them; with the actors so close and the stage so compact, it becomes impossible for your attention to withdraw at any moment.

Taking this to its logical extreme, lighting designer Hansjorg Schmidt’s placement of on-stage lights facing into the audience is, in its most literal sense, dazzling. Not only did these create the atmosphere of Faustus’ magic-filled industrialised laboratory, but often they were turned on full-blast so as to make the audience intensely uncomfortable. And I loved every moment. You can tell how well-crafted a performance is when the lights are suddenly turned on you, and you realise the actors (and characters) can see you clearly, and you feel yourself under the scrutiny of the looming phantom of Marlowe himself. This claustrophobic interrogation of the audience is the greatest achievement of Tangle’s production: not only is Dr Faustus being judged, but everyone else in the room also. Throughout the play the audience is forced to consider their own actions, greed and moral inadequacies, and it is this potential for involvement that, when pulled-off so impressively, makes theatre such an effective form.

I came out of the theatre still dazed, and perhaps not at all as disheartened as I might have been, considering the tragedy I had just witnessed. Instead, I felt a passionate yearning for more. More small touring theatre companies, more border-crossing artwork, more cramped basement theatres. The Bike Shed, however, is due to close in just over a month, as independent art institutions have had a habit of doing in recent years. But companies like Tangle, working in the frontier territory of performance art, are still here to push the boundaries and bring new life to a disappearing form. I feel very fortunate, then, for having seen such a rarefied phenomenon at its most talented and best devised.

 

Ben Britton

 

Featured image source.

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