Theatre: Doctor Faustus  
Marlowe Studio, Canterbury
Review by Lesley Finlay
Image by Paul Seaby

‘People in the olden days used to go to church all the time because they had nothing to do.’ Thus was the trenchant, unforgiving verdict of a young friend unable to comprehend life before the internet.

The thought occurred to me again as I reflected on the vibrant and modern re-telling of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Would young people understand his exploration of the deep questions of religion, morality and mortality? Would they see the point?

Well there was no doubt that this masterpiece was safe in the hands of director Ailin Conant who told this ancient story so well that, other than the big giveaway of 17th English, could well have been written today. It was the opening play in the Fourth Monkey’s brilliant Marlowe450 season.

In a nutshell, clever Faustus – played authentically by actress Alexandra Reynolds – is a scholar who dares to question religion, exploring instead necromancy; and summons the agent of Lucifer, the persuasive Mephistopheles to whom she signs her life away.

Temptations abound – Faustus is introduced to and indulges with the seven deadly sins; tricks the Pope, plays havoc at a thanksgiving meal, and upsets the lives of all she meets.

Conant’s set is a simple, industrial scaffold, versatile enough to add height, depth and mystery to the proceedings; the open set features a morgue; while the whole of the theatre space – a cavernous box in the newly-revamped Marlowe Theatre – was used to great effect.

The traditionalists might not like the overt sex; the gothic, vampy costumes; the thumping music (oh and the divine Doris Day’s Qe Sera Sera adding a disconcerting, sinister note throughout) but my young companion, mostly enjoying her first experience of Marlowe, loved the movement in particular, the modern turns of phrase and the moments of high camp.

A young, mostly female cast, made Marlowe’s words sing; the only difficulties of diction came in the recorded voiceovers.  Katherine Turner was a sinister Mephistopheles – innocently dressed in pale blue dress, white socks and ballet shoes: Stars of the future are in this cast without a doubt: Danny Brown, Katie Cherry to name just two.

The ensemble pieces were particularly successful – the cast worked exceptionally well together; there was great synchronicity and rhythm in movement and verse.

Undeniably, the story of Faustus and his downfall (Reynolds played it with increasing fatigue) is gruesome; heartrending and still resonates today.  Well done Ailin for a wonderfully, macabre and innovative retelling.