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Doctor Faustus, Royal Exchange, review

Jonathan Schofield urges you to go, before an excellent production closes

Written by . Published on October 5th 2010.

Doctor Faustus, Royal Exchange, review

‘It’s magic that has ravished me,” says Faustus, bored of being the internationally acclaimed scholar, finding his studies as dry as dust.

At that moment it becomes a play for all people who wonder why their lives have worked out as they have and regret it.

He wants a bit of naughty. He wants a bit of wrongness. And since he hasn’t got the internet he summons up the Devil. Instead, he gets his representative Mephistopheles.

The latter’s a tricky character who tempts and teases Faustus, leaving the poor man – apparently the brainiest in Europe – a bit dazed. Yes I’m a fallen angel and the Devil's main demon, says Mephistopheles, but I endure misery by being so proud and denying myself God’s almighty and eternal forgiveness, love and radiance. Still I can make things a bit fun for you down here.

Faustus wavers before whipping himself up into a frenzy of excitement about all the joys he can indulge in if he sells his soul. Mephistopheles, cutely appearing as an elderly country vicar, has a suggestion: “I’ll cull thee out the fairest courtesans/And bring them every morning to thy bed.”

So daft Faustus signs his soul away in blood, cutting himself as he does. The ultimate self harmer.

It’s all an absolute romp; the special effects are fabulous, the demons scare the audience, the visits of the Devil shock it, the slapstick is superb. Some parts are really silly especially the complex scenes where Faustus tricks the Pope, although these have to be seen in the context of the time.

Marlowe wrote the play in 1588-9, and England (and Scotland) was threatened on all sides by a Papacy and Roman Catholic monarchs, who were heretic-burning happy, and wished to reclaim the island realm for the Holy See. The intention behind the Papal scenes was to show an audience perhaps still doubting the decision to ditch Roman Catholicism that 'the vicar of Rome' was just a man, clothed in superstition, prone to cruelty, blind in hatred, an ass, in otherwords, like us all.

Despite the clowning about, the tickery and illusion, the play has one great strength.

Its lines of poetry are sublime and sprinkled with some of the most famous quotes in English. When Faustus raises Helen of Troy (a beautifully realised scene in this production) he says: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Illium.....” You may have heard the first half of that line before.

But it’s in the closing scenes where director Toby Frow’s production comes into its own. Instead of storm and fury as the demons come to drag Faustus away, the whole raucous production quietens and focuses in on this duped fool of a brilliantly clever man. A man who’s wasted his life. At that moment it becomes a play for all people who wonder why their lives have worked out as they have and regret it.

Finally Faustus cries: “The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike/ the devil will come, and Faustus must be damned./ O I’ll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?/ See see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament./One drop would save my soul, half a drop, ah my Christ.”


The acting of lead character Patrick O’Kane as Faustus is strong and nuanced, although the accent is wayward straying between camp Northern Irish and RP. Ian Redford is the standout out performer though for his Mephistopheles, a fallen angel who while tempting souls to hell, always carries the burden of his exile from heaven.

Doctor Faustus at the Royal Exchange is a 430-year-old romp with a ridiculous plot and sublime lines of poetry that speeds through almost three hours as though time is irrelevant. Go if you have chance before the play closes on Friday.

Faustus at the Royal Exchange closes this Friday, 9 October. 0161 833 9833.

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LHOctober 5th 2010.

I agree with every word of the Dr Faustas review. I was hesitant about going, especially at 3 hours long. But it was brilliant.

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