Castle Theatre Company’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ : review

Castle Theatre Company presented an ambitious production of Christopher Marlowe’s incredibly complex Doctor Faustus, a challenging play they brilliantly brought to life.

The director— Emily Browning— and stage manager— Emily Lipscombe— achieved to make the show an immersive experience in which the audience was trapped in Doctor Faustus’s mind. Choosing to have a smaller audience on the stage’s level was a nice change and an interesting way to recreate the cold atmosphere of a facility. It also meant, for the actors, being under more scrutiny which didn’t seem to intimidate them. On the contrary, this uncomfortable proximity paired with the music and lighting design gave the performers total control of the fascinated audience.

However, although the in-the-round layout was creative, they failed to take into account the impact it would have on lighting. Indeed, the audience was divided into three areas : the main one in front of the stage, and one on each of its sides. Some spotlights were placed on the sides, directly behind the audience, which meant those seating on the sides were blinded when they were looking at the stage. Apart from this issue, the use of space through movement and choreography was quite impressive. 

The cast engaged the audience and played with the idea of an experience halfway between hallucination and reality. The directors truly did an amazing job when it came to depicting the protagonist’s psyche and the various biblical and mythical characters. Having Helen of Troy passing through the stage without saying a word, like an ethereal apparition, was a clever way to pique our curiosity and to foreshadow the famous line ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships’. I found the whole scene with Helen of Troy mesmerizing, partly thanks to its slowness, and partly thanks to Sylvie Norman-Taylor who somehow conveyed so much while having her back turned— a pertinent choice considering Helen is never physically described in the Iliad. Dressing her, the ghost of the most beautiful woman, in a white silk dress could have seemed a little on the nose, but it reminded me of a Pandora-like figure given to men to ruin them, which seemed appropriate. 

Some proposals weren’t very subtle, like having the bad angel and the good angel on each side of the protagonist, but I’m not sure how it could have been avoided and Stephen Ledger as well as Daisy Mitchell— respectively bad angel and good angel— made up for it. Ledger’s deep voice contrasted well with Mitchell’s, which was crystal clear and, ironically enough, bewitching. Some proposals demonstrated a mastery of dramaturgy which is rarely seen in amateur shows and I was impressed by how perfect the execution was for the sins scene : they were moving onstage as one and none on them missed a beat.

As for the use of music, it sounded a little sloppy at times and there were definitely a few quirks, but nothing terrible and overall I think it’s one of the few performances where the music actually served the play and made sense dramatically. 

It was obvious the performance was the result of a team effort and although the producers, directors and stage managers are to praise for such a brilliantly inventive show, the cast is equally deserving. Ben Lewis as Faustus struck me as a hard-working performer who gave everything. Knowing the text is often taken for granted— it’s the bare minimum— but let’s not forget Marlowe is an Elizabethan playwright and memorizing Faustus’s lines is no easy task. Not to mention Lewis delivered every single word perfectly, as if he had been speaking with ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ his whole life. But his talent did not stop at his elocution : physicality was a key aspect of his performance and there was something oddly satisfying in watching him toss books with the exact same gesture every time. 

To me however, the one who stole the show was Bhav Amar as Mephistopheles. From the moment she set foot onstage, it was impossible not to stare at her in awe. While Lewis was admirable for his impeccable acting, Amar’s effortlessly natural presence was breathtaking. She embodied nonchalance, she talked as if she didn’t have an audience, and she might have been the most convincing character. As a duo, Ben Lewis and Bhav Amar were captivating.

This production was a real theatrical experience— with a touch of flower garlands and confetti!—, one that had actual theatrical proposals, one whose occasional clumsiness was the sign of creativity. This show was bold enough to experiment and explore other ways to stage our literary canon, and I look forward to seeing more of this incredible team.

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