Being a frequent Facebook user, I was no stranger to the devilish, black-and-white profile pictures that those involved in Exeter University Shakespeare Society’s production of Doctor Faustus have switched to in recent weeks. Interest sufficiently piqued, I leapt at the opportunity to review the sold-out production, and I can safely say that it was positively spectacular.
Doctor Faustus is a Renaissance tragedy by Christopher Marlowe that tells the story of a German doctor, who, bored by the generic studies of law and philosophy, turns to darker materials in order to gain fame and success. Delving into the horrifying world of black magic, Faustus ends up summoning a devil named Mephistopheles and, ultimately, gaining monopoly over magic. But is it worth giving up his soul to Lucifer in twenty-four years’ time?
ShakeSoc’s production of the play (directed by Lydia Sax) was staged within Exeter’s famous cathedral, with its gothic architecture and looming statues of angels watching over us. As the audience entered the cathedral and took their seats, we were met with a stage lit by flickering candlelight, Faustus (Ryan Bonner) poring frustratedly over numerous dog-eared textbooks and a solemn, white angel (Mimi Templar-Gay) watching over him. This was offset by a sombre piano soundtrack which, together with the visual elements, created an ominous and foreboding atmosphere from the very beginning and left me with a sense of anticipation for what was to come.
The performances of all of the actors astounded me, but I was particularly impressed by the performance of Coco Brown, who took on the role of Mephistopheles. Contrary to the original text, this interpretation of Marlowe’s tragedy cast the demon as female, which provided a refreshing, modern take on a rather male-dominated play. I found Brown’s performance empowering. She maintained a stern countenance throughout, symbolising her character’s unwavering power over Faustus, despite him supposedly having total control over her due to his pact with Lucifer. The way she moved across the performance space, too, conveyed a sense of authority to the audience; she kept her head held high and mockingly sneered down at us when she spoke, asserting the fact that her character was confident and self-assured. I truly believe that the potential gamble of casting a female in a traditionally male role was an excellent choice, and added a wonderful new flavour to the classic tragedy.
There were numerous creepy motifs that ran through the performance, but two of these really stood out to me. Firstly, Bonner’s costume – a stark white shirt, trousers, jacket and shoes which, initially, gave the audience a sense of goodness and purity of character – was slowly stained red with suspicious liquid that one could only assume was blood. This really solidified the fact that Faustus had become tainted by sin and was irredeemably “damned”. Furthermore, I noticed that as the tension ramped up and Faustus got closer to inevitably being dragged to Hell by Lucifer, the candles dotted around the performance area (providing one of the only sources of light) were one by one blown out. This further exaggerated the notion that Faustus was being dragged into darkness by his own greed and was incredibly eerie for those of us watching his downfall.
Truly, though, the cast of Doctor Faustus saved the best until last, as the final scene of the play was by far the most poignant for me. In this instance, the few strips of stage lights surrounding the performance area were filtered to wash the cathedral in a horrifying, crimson glow, and the few remaining burning candles were hurriedly blown out by the ensemble. Then, suddenly, the huge door at the rear of the performance area was flung open and Lucifer (portrayed by James Stevenson) dragged Faustus, kicking and screaming, into the night. The resounding echo of the heavy wooden door slamming shut at the performance’s culmination was jarring in the best possible way; the audience was left stunned and awe-struck at how swift Faustus’ demise had really been.
All in all, ShakeSoc’s production of Doctor Faustus is a must-watch; RAZZ readers who managed to get tickets for this spectacular show have an excellent-yet-terrifying watch ahead of them. I really look forward to seeing what they put on next!