Doctor Faustus at Southwark Playhouse
Intertwining tragedy with comedy, Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 morality tale, Doctor Faustus remains the best known of his seven plays. The classic centres on the titular character (Jamie O’Neill), who strikes up a deal with the devil: in exchange for his soul, the ambitious academic will be granted 24 years of knowledge, wisdom and power. Exploring themes of superstition and the supernatural as well as sin, religion and the afterlife, it’s not hard to see why the play caused controversy upon its initial premiere, but does it still pack a powerful punch today?
Lazarus Theatre Company seek to answer that question with their visually stimulating adaptation. In 95 minutes, the audience are bombarded with a multi-sensory feast. Smartly choreographed movement sequences, song and soundscape are enhanced by the relatively intimate studio setting; a wall garlanded with newspaper cut outs adds to the sense of claustrophobia and the mental deterioration of our protagonist. The remainder of Sorcha Corcoran’s set consists of sterile-looking office desks, emphasising the divide between the real and the spiritual worlds while effectively establishing Faustus as the scholar he is.
Impactful lighting by Stuart Glover complements effective use of sound by Sam Glossop. Reuben Speed’s clever costume design is striking – the Seven Deadly Sins being of particular note. The devil truly is in the detail here, and spectators can’t help but be enthralled by the aesthetics of the production.
That said, one could argue certain sequences outstay their welcome. Points are made but then lingered on or repeated unnecessarily, causing audience attention to wane. The Elizabethan verse – while delivered with aplomb – also reduces the pace on occasion. Thankfully, the committed cast inject enough energy to sustain our engagement for the most part.
O’Neill immediately lures viewers in with some charming and humorous audience interactions. The actor succeeds in commanding our attention throughout, adding further richness to a complex character and ensuring we are fully invested in his journey. The actor’s scenes with David Angland (who conjures suitable menace as the corporate suit-wearing Mephistopheles) are a joy to watch. The entire ensemble adds a great deal to proceedings with Candis Butler Jones’s white suit-clad Lucifer, Rachel Kelly and Henry Mettle standing out especially.
Director Ricky Dukes, along with his cast and creatives, should be commended for taking on such an ambitious adaptation. An accessible production for anyone new to the play, and a reminder of Marlowe’s brilliance for those familiar, this makes for a raucously entertaining, if slightly uneven theatrical experience.
Doctor Faustus is at Southwark Playhouse from 1st September until 1st October 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.