Most are familiar with Christopher Marlowe’s play and the seven deadly sins which haunt Doctor Faustus in this Elizabethan tragedy. Few may be aware that Faustus is described in the traditional Chorus as being from ‘base stock’ yet ambitious enough to become a physician and professor of divinity at Wittenberg University. Even then his undeniable thirst for greater worldly knowledge leads him to summon the demon Mephistopheles and his Faustian pact with Lucifer.
The Tower Theatre Company tackle his tormented spiritual journey with enough of a modernist tilt to stay true to Marlowe’s vision but not even the great Marlowe was blessed with the pluck to give the deadly sin of Lust a Benny Hill-like characterisation. Actually, Benny Hill in a leopard-skin mini skirt leering and salivating all over Faustus after the Seven Deadly Sins strut out onto the stage as if it were a fashion show, led by a white-turbaned, red-lip-sticked, incredibly camp Pride who’d make John Inman pale in comparison.
Are You Being Served? You will be because this magnetic and fixating production directed by Lucy Bloxham offers a clever take on the Faustian tragedy with lead actor Jonathan Cooper conducting this quest for limitless knowledge with an anguished, spirited and passionate performance which suggests a sliver of demonic possession even before the angels warn him of Lucifer.
Many of the cast play several parts, switching effortlessly as they do so. Notable, in this respect is a scene where Faustus messes up the Pope. Faustus attends a papal feast and is invisible to the guests but intent on causing havoc. A good few of the sombre clergymen around the table were also in earlier scenes donning mini skirts, turbans, Sly and the Family Stone-style felt hats and iPhone head sets when parading as the seven deadly sins.
This, of course, doesn’t apply to Robert Reeve as Mephistopheles. His powerful presence and basey tones are central to Lucifer’s demon alone. The long leather jacket is a nice touch by costume designer Julia Collier. If Neo and Morpheus wore them in the Matrix when confronting the forces of evil and during their own struggles to tackle universal knowledge then the metaphor can be just as easily flipped here.
One might also see something deeper in Mephistopheles’ demands for the contract be written in blood. By the end of the performance, these incisions scratch deep and might make one or two in the audience ponder which side of the line they’re on or whether such a line should exist at all. This applies if the discussion here is not just Faustus’ extremity of actions and his discomfort but the universal acceptance of who draws the moral lines and with which authority. Much of the supernatural, with modern wisdom, now falls into the realms of either fairy tales/superstition or just undiscovered science. However, as regards a morality tale the cuts into Faustus’ arm are an apt metaphor for one who will step over the line regardless of the stake.
Ultimately, the Elizabethan era’s uncomfortable relationship between science and religion is examined. Science forever emerging, religion forever self-protective and the inevitable tension between the two. Also, the suggestion that anything outside the bounds of common knowledge must be ungodly until science or religion proves it otherwise safe. Like the Greek myth of Icarus or even Prometheus, it is a cautionary tale about knowing when to stop looking too deeply and be satisfied with who you are, what you have and what you know.