Nowadays, over-achievers who think that they’re indestructible apply for a place on The Apprentice. Go back 400 years and things could take an even darker turn.
Doctor Faustus is by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who met an early death after being fatally wounded in a pub brawl. Marlowe's famous play is the tale of a man who, having exhausted all scholarly learning, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 42 years of limitless power. The story is an exploration of what he does with these powers (not a lot) and how he battles with himself, before his hellish end…
Despite the flowery early-modern language, this is very accessible theatre – it’s easy to keep up and follow what’s happening. This is helped a great deal by Christopher Staines's portrayal of Faustus – which, simply put, is utterly gripping. This is a one man show (apart from the voice of the demon Mephistopheles), with the action often taking place inside the protagonist’s head, to great, unnerving effect.
At times Staines seems genuinely possessed, taken over by strange demonic voices as he portrays the seven deadly sins. The hilarious and at the same time disturbing part-improvised, part-farce, part-slapstick scene involving the Pope provides the audience with some big laughs – depending on how warped your sense of humour is.
The Rose is an intimate space with around 40 seats and a floor level stage just a few metres across. You’re always close to the action, and Staines's proximity to the audience makes for powerful, uncomfortable, wonderful theatre. This gives the already dark, eerie and tense story of Doctor Faustus an even greater cerebral quality. There’s a real sense of paranormal darkness enfolding before your eyes, with the question of how much of the darkness is happening in Faustus's own mind, or even if the demons are real or not, left for the audience to decide.
It's an adaptation that will make you look at your own darkness, your own dark thoughts, your own inner demons… It brings the supernatural threat, which would have terrified contemporary audiences, bang up to date.
Apart from Staines, the other star of the show is the venue itself. The Rose Theatre pre-dates The Globe – it was the theatre portrayed in the film Shakespeare In Love. But unlike its glamorous younger sister up the road, The Rose is in a very sorry state. Only the foundations remain, which are covered over in concrete and water for preservation. There’s very little of the old theatre to see, however at night its margins are lit up in a line of red lights.
This was the first place that Doctor Faustus was performed, so seeing it in its original home is an extra special treat. The Rose is trying to raise a whole heap of money for an ambitious renovation project. There's a short talk about the history of The Rose directly after the performance should you wish to find out more. Or you can read up on their website.
Doctor Faustus runs at The Rose Theatre until 28 February. Tickets cost £12/£10 and can be booked online or via the Box Office on 020 7261 9565. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary review ticket.
By Danny Hilton