By Christopher Marlowe Directed by Martin Parr Presented by the Rose Playhouse on 2 March 2014
The infamous legend of the man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for 24 years of knowledge and power has never lost its ability to unsettle and shock.
In this fast and furious production, we enter the mind of a man who, through narcissism, ambition and fatal curiosity, finds himself staring into the mouth of Hell, as the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, once again awakens the Devil and his legion of fallen angels.
An impressive one-man performance by Christopher Staines, with a simple set (a single, small office desk and chair, a pile of books) and an ambitious metaphysical canvas that takes in the whole known universe — past, present and future — together with all the unknown places imagined by the religious to keep everyone on their toes. Of course, Faustus himself makes the mistake of believing Hell to be merely made up, and the play tracks his descent towards the fulfilment of his bargain: 24 years of good times for an eternity of torment.
Black gauze separates the stage from the dig beyond, and the space is further blackened by countless pinpoints of light. Those reflected in the rippling water are like twinkling stars in the firmament. We have this world, the veil, and a world beyond. A darker image is that this shows us just what Faustus is gambling away, when he says:
Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephistopheles.
He only has one soul to give, but that is a heavy enough price.
Staines has his work cut out, taking on the lead and many of the thirty-odd named characters plus sundry other scholars, friars, soldiers and sins. In grey and black contemporary knitwear he doesn’t look the part of any of them, but the first words he speaks dispel all doubts: this would be a mesmerizing interpretation. His melancholy air and voice, slightly cracked as if through too much conjuration, combine to form an intense disposition.
The audience chatter dies down, single notes are picked out on the piano, almost syncing with a siren from distant Blackfriars, and then in the silence we can just hear the sound of water lapping the tiny shore.
The chorus begins the tale, and we soon reach the core of the argument, which is valid but unsound (the logic is good but the premise false):
The reward of sin is death: that’s hard.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there
is no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
Faustus doesn’t want to die, and seems unconvinced by the Christian’s promise of everlasting life. He bids “adieu!” to divinity and looks longingly at “these metaphysics” of the magician, whose “necromantic books are heavenly”:
… his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a demigod…
He throws the holy scripture onto the floor and admits that it is “magic that hath ravished me.” He clears his desk of the other books, and calls upon Mephistopheles, beginning the incantation with some confidence and ending with his head in his hands, as if giving up the ghost (figuratively, not literally, as he wishes) already.
He pauses between the two words “be resolute”: he wants power and knowledge and he asks himself:
Why waver’st thou? O, something soundeth in mine ear,
“Abjure this magic, turn to God again!”
No chance of that, yet, when he thinks “hell’s a fable.” Mephistopheles (his prerecorded voice over a speaker) encourages him to think so still, till experience changes his mind:
FAUSTUS. Why, dost thou think that Faustus shall be damned?
MEPHIST. Ay, of necessity, for here’s the scroll
In which thou hast given thy soul to Lucifer.
FAUSTUS. Ay, and body too; and what of that?
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That, after this life, there is any pain?
No, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales.
MEPHIST. But I am an instance to prove the contrary,
For I tell thee I am damned and now in hell.
An example of the principle of falsifiability: it only takes one instance to bring down a whole theory (in practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that). Faustus is too far gone:
My heart is hardened, I cannot repent;
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven:
Swords, poisons, halters, and envenomed steel
Are laid before me to despatch myself;
And long ere this I should have done the deed,
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.
He can access all kinds of knowledge, but asks one revealing question:
Now tell me who made the world?
Surely, he knows the answer?
He rips down the veil, running offstage and around the pool to the back wall:
And, whirling round with this circumference,
Within the concave compass of the pole,
From east to west his dragons swiftly glide…
If not exactly living the dream, it’s a dramatic change from being seated at the desk. As he “measures coasts and kingdoms of the earth” he throws a pebble into the pool.
Returning to the stage, for the first time he seeks a costume change, plucking a blue beret from a lady in the front row, and a very nice-looking scarf from another audience member (running along the back row without tripping up over bags or feet).
Thus transformed, he adopts a miscellany of (deliberately) dreadful comedy accents to impersonate friars (one talks like a goat) and the pope and to create the scene in the Vatican with scrunched-up pages torn from the Bible (a fitting source for these props). The ridiculous situation is underscored by the scary rhyming of “frightening” and “lightning” and there’s a nice allusion to the clerical sexual abuse scandal, as the pope repeats — “I love you all, my children” — before realizing that people might get the wrong idea. Then he invites the friars to come and lick the papal toes, the “popey toes” — which by all accounts are scrofulous and not at all lickable.
A mobile or a watch emits a couple of beeps, and, in papal character, Staines ad libs that it must be God calling, before confessing to adultery of a scene and admitting that he can feel the ghost of Christopher Marlowe turning in his grave. He is chastised by a paper pope, who sticks to his face before he can tear him off and throw him to the floor.
The final hour comes, and is soon almost gone. He climbs up on to the rail, stands there with hand on ceiling as if steadying himself before jumping, and we’re all wondering how far down is it on the other side:
O, stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!
I see an angel hover o’er thy head…
The final syllables of Mephistopheles are voiceless, the piano’s single notes return, the branch is cut. Brilliant.