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Doctor Faustus - Chichester 2004

'The 2004 Chirchester Festival production of Dr Faustus began in the Minerva Theatre, a three-sided, approximately 300-seat venue, and then promenaded through the atmospheric locations of the city itself, coming to its hellish conclusion within Chirchester Cathedral. Its hundred-strong community ensemble and seven professional actors were directed by a team of four and aided by any number of ushers, craftspeople and church folk.

Jane Heather's design for the production was an intriguingly difficult-to-read, kind of 1970s version of The Matrix. [...] suspended old television sets, hi-fis, and reams of electrical cable and [...] fluorescent lights [...]. These aspects of the design were somewhat historically incongruous with the costume Faustus (Samuel West) wore for his first entrance: charcoal jeans and t-shirt and ultra cool red-and-black trainers. In the aisles, in more timeless all-grey and all-white, sat the bad and good Angels and when Mephistopheles returned in a more palatable shape than the lizard-like demon he - or some lithe Chirchester teenager - first appeared as, he was a contemporary clergyman. [...]

Of the seven deadly sins soon to be paraded through Chirchester's High Street, though, lust was the recurrent drive. After Faustus had smoke a joint and then, presumably not high enough, sniffed some glue, he repeatedly grabbed his crotch, and masturbated during the spell. Mephistopeles, a hyper-intense Michael Feast, evidently understood this because his relationship with his temporary master was very homoerotic, all lingering hugs and kisses. When Mephistopheles opened his briefcase to ratify the bargain, he very sexually withdrew a syringe with which he would extract Faustus'blood. The contract made, the audience were ushered into the streets by devils who variously populated the theatre foyer, the semi-illuminated passageways on the way to the main street and once there, any hellish nook or cranny. [...] The seven deadly sins were creatively illustrated by reference and proximity to particular properties of the High Street. The Abbey bank may not have appreciated their close association with Greed, as devils lasciviously slithered over their automatic teller machines; neither, perhaps, would the local baker have willingly employed Lucifer and his minions to wickedly offer jam-oozing doughnuts to the spectators. [...]

The drive of the narrative, I suspect, was directed by the path through the town, so that scenes were chosen and ordered because they were suitable to a particular location along the linear physical journey that the production plotted. [...] The conclusion of the production, and of the play, took place, of course, within the cathedral. Mephistopheles, a shirtless hell-fire preacher, and Helen of troy, all in gold, watched Faustus' last moments on earth. From dangerously high at the back of the cathedral came the Angels' last interjections. After the piercing agony of Faustus' last speech the cathedral bell ominously tolled twelve times before Mephistopheles seductively claimed his prize with a long kiss. Here was the fittingly sexualised climax of this contemporary Faustian temptation, the danger and reward of overwhelming desire.

Several of the reviewers lamented the productions' inconsistency: the text was a mixture of grand morality play and knockabout tomfoolery; there was a too-disparate clash of styles; the acting by the untrained community members was - newsflash - inferior to the professionals int he cast. For me, these were pedantic cavils; the production's mobility and daring wonderfully illustrated both the legitimate juxtaposition (and hybrid) of the poetic tragedy with the popular silliness and of the near impossibility of pinning down this most anarchic and enduring of myths.'

Rob Conkie, RORD 44 (2005), 128-131

Reviews:

 

Lyn Gardner, 'Dr Faustus', The Guardian, 11 September

Sunday Telegraph, 12 September

The Times, 13 September

Dominic Cavendish, 'The devil comes to town', Daily Telegraph 14 September

Evening Standard, 14 September

Independent on Sunday, 19 September

Sunday Times, 19 September