As a young lad, I seem to recall going to the Marlowe theatre in Canterbury to see a pantomime. All I can remember, after all these years, is that a very angry Christmas pudding had a major (or at least memorable) role. The theatre is named after local lad Christopher Marlowe and yesterday afternoon at Shakespeare’s Globe I finally saw some of his own work (I believe the panto was penned by another), “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”.
As previously mentioned, I had invested in a seat and cushion – and a very sound investment they proved. Whilst sitting down in comfort was good, even better was the protection provided by the thatched roof that we ‘nobs’ enjoyed during the reign (and I use that word deliberately) of old Queen Bess. Just before the play began, the light rain we had been “enjoying” was replaced by thunder, lightning and really heavy rain – in some ways, rather appropriate for the subject matter (if slightly mis-timed) – but not much fun for the groundlings or those actors who had to emerge from the shelter of the stage canopy. My day-job predicting the future once again proving its worth – it’s Wimbledon week and Glastonbury starts today, heavy rain was almost inevitable! The sun did arrive by the interval – so I could enjoy my rather fine (if London-priced) tub of ice cream in its warming rays.
This post will now attempt to hang a sharp left, and try a little bit of theatrical review – though I suspect the late Sheridan Morley has little to fear. Once upon a time, I used to see the RSC pretty regularly, but have fallen out of the habit of theatre-going in recent years and as a result was strangely over-excited as the curtain of rain came down over the stage (no fabric curtain for the Globe – too anachronistic). I think the play provided everything one should expect from Elizabethan entertainment – and probably more. Bawdy comedy – and some of it seriously bawdy, with the expected knob and fart jokes joined by at least one clear allusion to what stand-ups call the C-bomb (but which James Naughtie calls the Culture Secretary), tragedy, music on period instruments, poetry, dance, a bit of rather out-dated astronomy (Marlowe was no Brian Cox) and even puppetry.
For someone who usually experiences drama via television, cinema or the book some elements of the live theatre seem quite weak – but others were a revelation. The fight scenes and special effects cannot compete with modern filming and CGI – or even my imagination (which I should probably have been exercising). On the screen you get used to seeing actors very close-up and with them talking quite quietly, which does make the theatre – especially in the rather loud weather of the first act – initially a rather different experience which takes a little while to adjust to. The costume though was easily the equal of other media (and some of the changes seemed inhumanly fast – or at least one pair of unadvertised twins was involved) and the music not only extremely well suited to the mood and action but was only added where appropriate – most of the time the audience was trusted to find the correct emotional response unaided! Some elements would never work on a screen, but were truly brilliant on stage – the dance and puppetry were very effective and Lucifer having the damned demonstrate the Seven Deadly Sins was incredible as was Hell itself at the end.
The acting seemed good to me – and you do get full 3D without wearing silly glasses as the action comes out into the audience (as did at least one thrown stick of celery and the odd grape!). Paul Hilton as Faustus does make you believe in the man, despite his rather foolish and inconsistent actions. Arthur Darvill (who always seemed so nice in the past) as Mephistopheles was really quite frightening when suddenly switching from Fautus’ servant/accomplice/confidant to his true nature as the demon with a soul to collect. Not only did these two get the main parts, but they were the only characters who get a chance to snack on stage – an important consideration for yours truly if he is ever to tread the boards. The supporting cast were great and had to play several, widely varied parts each and I think part of the fun is trying to spot who they were last – I never did recognise Lucifer in his other roles (though I did see an awful lot of him in one of these).
The underlying story of Faustus does suffer the same defect as most tales involving a character with enormous occult powers – they don’t really do very much with them. In Fautus case, he does little more than a few practical jokes and a bit of historical re-enactment. If I were given all the power of Hell (not, I would suggest a very wise thing for anyone to give me) I’d like to think I’d get something done. Then again, Marlowe did have to operate given the constraints on special effects in the late 1580s – so he has more excuse than more contemporary scribes who tend to allow a bunch of American teens to prevail over the massed forces of darkness.
To conclude, the whole thing was amazingly entertaining – though it’s hard to pin down exactly why. I think there must just be something about the live theatre that means it is greater than the sum of its parts (a bit like live music) – that’s synergy, man. Certainly, based on this experience, other trips to “proper” theatre could well be on the cards, and so could make their way into this blog if we aren’t all very careful…