Can a play that challenges religion and knowledge be set in University College’s Norman Chapel? Peculius Theatre Company seems to think so. Directed by David Knowles, a fresher reading theology, this production of Doctor Faustus promises to be visually exciting and saturated with talent.
Written in the seventeenth century by Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus challenges the idea of an unquenchable thirst for knowledge through the life and decisions of one man. Doctor Faustus, a German scholar, decides to study necromancy, as he is unsatisfied with the accepted academic areas of medicine, philosophy, religion and law. After selling his soul to Lucifer he is given twenty-four years service of a devil called Mephistophilis as well as unlimited power. Doctor Faustus uses this “gift” for trivial activities and pranks instead of achieving anything worthwhile, justifying his behaviour with the reasoning that he would be able to achieve great things before being damned to spend eternity in hell.
The play toys with the extremes of damnation versus salvation, causing much debate over the last four hundred years about Marlowe’s perception of the grandeur of heaven and hell. Resembling the horror of Frankenstein, the audience is challenged about whether the quest for knowledge is treacherous or whether Marlowe could be giving subtle encouragement to its pursuit.
Knowles’ adaptation of the play balances naturalism with the abstract superbly. Having instructed the cast to learn their lines before rehearsals started, the dialogue has an innate flow, as if the words were the actors’ own. This fluidity, combined with the simplistic lighting and costume design, creates a dramatic and fantastical interpretation of Doctor Faustus. Furthermore, the presence of a choir is hugely effective, adding a chilling ambience to the venue. The music was composed for the production and unites classic Renaissance with new material. This combination of old and new is a recurring theme in this production. The antique venue of the stone Norman Chapel is contrasted with the modernized simplicity of hand held lights and minimal props.
The Norman Chapel as a venue is one hurdle Knowles has taken in his stride. To describe the acting space as limited is an understatement, but what room the actors do have is used expertly. The stage area itself is similar to a theatre in the round, given that the audience has a 360° view of the actors, however, the stage is rectangular in shape with seating on three of the four sides. There is barely enough space for thirty spectators in the chapel and only ten actors perform in this play, the result of which is an uncanny intimacy between actor and audience that draws you deeper into the mindset of Doctor Faustus throughout his life.
The irony surrounding the performance adds an extra element to the production. Not only in the fact that a play challenging religion is being performed in a chapel, but in that Faustus is determined he cannot be saved when the cross, a symbol of redemption, is permanently on show throughout the performance.
After talking to the cast and crew two things become apparent: how much detail has been put into making the production “atmospheric” and how passionate the director is about this piece – it’s infectious! Showing Wednesday 9th of February through to Saturday 12th, 19.45, at the Norman Chapel, University College, this is one original adaptation of a classic not to be missed.