Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Until July 30
Reviewed by Mark Brown
You have to admire Bard in the Botanics (BiB), the Glasgow summer festival that stages ambitious productions of Shakespeare plays and other Renaissance dramas with very limited resources. In addition to its larger cast shows, which play (weather permitting) outdoors in the splendid botanic gardens, the programme also offers smaller scale works in the lovely Kibble Palace glasshouse.
One of the latter is this staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in a radically revised adaptation by BiB associate director Jennifer Dick. As so often at this festival, one is impressed by the fearlessness with which it tackles a major classical play.
Dick has cut the cast down to three. Adam Donaldson plays the titular scholar, who sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years of service from the Devil’s sidekick Mephistopheles. Stephanie McGregor takes on the role of Mephisto, while Ryan Ferrie plays The Good Angel (and a number of other characters besides).
The production makes the most of its female Mephisto, creating some convincing moments of sexual tension between her and Faustus. If only the rest of this staging was so successful.
The dramatic spine of Dick’s version is a tug-of-war between Mephisto and the Angel, with Faustus in the middle. At the outset, one is reminded of Tom And Jerry cartoons, in which little cats (emissaries from Heaven and Hell) appear on Tom’s shoulders trying to persuade him to take a, respectively, good and bad course of action.
Indeed, so fixed is the dramatic frame here that it resembles some sort of theatrical tennis match, with Mephisto and the Angel as the players, and Faustus as the ball. In other words, the piece moves from side-to-side, rather than progressing forward (or, more correctly, downward).
Dick does maintain Mephisto’s warnings to Faustus about the agonies of Hell, and we do see the doctor choose the power of dark magic over the salvation of religion. However, the structure of this version is simply too narrow to allow Faustus’s vanity and personal will to really drive the drama on.
There are some moments of light relief from the show’s somewhat static form. A Catholic pantomime, in which a blasphemous Faustus mocks not only the Pope but the sacrament itself, is irreverently comic.
However, elsewhere, and despite the best efforts of an accomplished cast, the production is undone. Dick indulges her apparent taste for ill-judged mime with silly hand gestures representing the use of supernatural powers by Mephisto and the Angel.
Worse still, as if she is somehow aware of her production’s sense of stasis, the director tries to liven it up with moments of irritating melodrama; whether it be shouting and over-emoting by her actors or gratuitous blasts of consciously monumental music.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 24, 2016
© Mark Brown