Review: Dr Faustus

This devilish tale is the real deal


By John Jeffay, September 21, 2010
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Royal Exchange, Manchester

Patrick O’Kane as Dr Faustus in the Royal Exchange’s spectacular production of Marlowe’s tragedy

Patrick O’Kane as Dr Faustus in the Royal Exchange’s spectacular production of Marlowe’s tragedy

A 400-year–old play about a pact with the devil may sound like nobody's idea of fun. But miss it at your peril - it is very likely the most remarkable theatrical event you will see this year.

I suspect director Toby Frow, Patrick O'Kane, who plays the heroic/villainous doctor, and the rest of the cast and crew may have followed in Dr Faustus's own footsteps and traded their own souls with Lucifer to create such a spectacle.

Between them, they summon up devastating performances, out-of-this-world effects and all manner of ungodly miracles, angels, monsters, deceptions and even decapitations to tell Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century tale of the struggle between good and evil.

For the audience, and no doubt
for those on stage, it is an exhausting and exhilarating three hours of surprises, dramatic outrage, characters emerging from the places you would least expect, riotous hilarity and sombre introspection.

Faustus is a brilliant academic, who tires of his studies and seeks ultimate power and knowledge. He signs a contract in blood with the devil, rejecting God in favour of 24 years of unrestrained power and pleasure. But when his time is up, he must give up his soul, and suffer eternal damnation.

O'Kane gives a triumphant performance as Faustus, charting his rise and intoxication on success and then his desperate descent, via a groggy hangover as the pleasures of his power turn sour and he finds himself reduced from world genius to court jester.

He is part of vast cast, including 20-odd students from the Manchester Metropolitan University School of Theatre, who are responsible for most of the demonic crowd scenes.

Mephistopheles - the devil's negotiating agent –- is played marvellously by Ian Redford as genial grandpa with a nasty streak, and who dresses not unlike an Orthodox Jew in his trilby and dark overcoat.

Lucifer, the devil proper, is played imaginatively by a woman. Gwendoline Christie cackles menacingly as she helps close the Faustus deal with a freakish display of the Seven Deadly Sins. The mix of dark and light is magnificent, and beautifully directed, from the ecstasy of Faustus taunting the Pope, to the moment when hell literally opens up to swallow him.

Marlowe himself was no saint. He lived a short and violent life, killed a man in a duel, may have been an atheist and died aged 29 in a pub brawl.

In its day, his telling of the Faustus story provoked a storm, with peasants running in terror from the theatre, spooked by the blasphemies depicted on stage.

A sign of the times, maybe, but this audience did not run. They clapped and clapped.

(Tel: 0161 8339833)

    Last updated: 10:42am, September 21 2010