Dr Faustus, Shetland Youth Theatre, Garrison Theatre
THE STORY of Dr Faustus is so much a part of European folklore that it needs no more than a brief recap for those that missed last week’s show: disillusioned scholar offers his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of the high life. For those that did attend it was an interesting experience.
The audience was met by an eerie soundscape. Esoteric banners hung over writhing, painted creatures – the effect was of Kiss covering Tangerine Dream.
Pendant from the proscenium were Roseanne Watt and Hannah Whiley, respectively the Good and Bad Angels. At the heart of this strangely unsettling tableau sat Chris Halcrow as Faustus. As the central figure he was allowed a period costume, distinct from the Gene Simmons make-up and ubiquitous Shetland Youth Theatre greys. Learning the language of Elizabethan drama is an achievement. The cast should be proud of their feat in learning vast tracts of Latin incantation and archaic English.
It soon became clear though that these lines had been learned, not necessarily understood. They were delivered with clarity but little conviction and this trend continued throughout the show.
The director must have had quite a juggling act between the experience of the cast and the maturity of the material.
The Angels deserve special mention. Balanced precariously but elegant from their swings, their silent focus on events was often more eloquent than the spoken words.
Books were the only literal props in this production. Everything else was suggested by its name written across opened pages. The impact of this device was lost in a font virtually illegible beyond the first few rows of the audience.
Unfortunately upstaged by the pantomime villainy of Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus stops whining like a student with a blown grant and gets down to the business of conjuring. To the company’s credit this scene was genuinely unnerving. A demonic cacophony echoed the Dr’s blasphemous words before Mephistopheles sprang into view.
Initially more dyspeptic than demonic, Hannah Uttley played the devil’s emissary with a rigid sneer throughout. Whether this was a demon’s resentment of mortal command, or an actor’s awareness of a too small leotard is open to debate.
Presumably this was one of the moments of “high tragedy” alluded to in the programme. What followed then must have been intended as “base comedy”. Like others of his time, Marlowe would alternate comedy with darker scenes to maintain an audience’s interest. Sadly this didn’t work here. Comedy depends on timing as much as content. Even the flashest choreography can only spread an extended masturbation joke so far. In spite of the valiant efforts of Harry Whitham, Ellen Smith, Erin Murdoch, Amy Boyle and Jenny Heubeck they couldn’t rescue these painfully staged lulls.
Though there were devils and demons aplenty, the show seemed beset by gremlins of a more modern variety. The startling appearance of Lucifer (Freya Inkster) was simple and effective, yet marred by an ill-set radio mic. Similarly the apparent crucifixion of the Old Man (Joe Christie) could have been more dramatic had it not taken long minutes to unclip the flying rig. Though the works of Bosch were touted as a starting point the visuals were more reminiscent of 80s rock concerts, and the films of Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Monty Python. Sometimes the fine line between a knowing nod and self-indulgence was blurred but overall it worked.
For followers of the Shetland Youth Theatre this was a glorious revisiting of effective motifs and music from past shows. The downside of this is that it felt more a retrospective of what the company had done, rather than a showcase of what it could do. That said this was a brave attempt on the part of a company filled with potential. It will be interesting to see where they go next.
The character of John Faustus can be a metaphor for the production as a whole: he didn’t try to be bad. Unfortunately ambition can over reach itself and as he found to his cost, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.