A Faustian pact

Candia McKormack summons the Devil in the basement of an Oxford bookshop

A Faustian pact

Candia McKormack summons the Devil in the basement of an Oxford bookshop

Surrounded by three miles of bookshelves in the basement Norrington Room of Blackwell’s historic bookshop in Oxford, one gets the sense that the location couldn’t be more fitting for a production of Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’.

On the descent to Hades (that is the carpeted staircase into the semi-darkness of the bookshop) I sensed this was to be a very special production indeed. Many moons ago I saw a production of ‘Doctor Faustus’ with the part of Lucifer’s agent, Mephistopheles, being played by the colossus of English acting that was the great Bernard Bresslaw (yes, he of ‘Carry On’ fame – titter ye not) and so there were some gargantuan shoes to be filled.

Having seen a few of Creation Theatre’s productions, you can’t help but experience a frisson of excitement when setting out to see one of their shows. Their USP is bringing theatre to unexpected venues: there’s the annual festive performance in a 100-year-old mirrored ‘spiegeltent’, summer performances in the rooftop amphitheatre, then there was ‘Othello’ in a 17th-century Baptist church, and Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ in the garden of Oxford Castle.

The play opens with the learned scholars immersed in their books. For Faustus (played by Gus Gallagher), his greed for knowledge is one that can’t be satisfied by books alone. He delves into the Dark Arts and, using perhaps the darkest art of all – that of necromancy – he summons Mephistopheles (Gwynfor Jones), a servant of Lucifer. In exchange for 24 years of granting his every whim, Mephistopheles makes Faustus agree to hand over his soul to the Devil once the time has elapsed. Faustus, overcome by his greed and desire for experiences beyond the musings of most mortals, he agrees and sets upon a path that sees him travelling the globe, meeting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, and summoning the spirits of Alexander and the Prince of Persia whom we see do battle before our very eyes.

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‘The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’ was first published in 1604, with early performances causing huge controversy; it was said that in one of the early performances the Devil actually appeared and people were even driven mad. Possibly. I would say we’re not blessed with the imagination of those living 400 years ago; were Creation Theatre in operation in the early 17th century, I feel a good fifty per cent of the audience filling the intimate space of The Norrington Room would be driven to insanity. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

One of the things that has always impressed me most about the Creation actors is their immense physicality; they use every part of their bodies and every part of the space they’re working in to get the magic across to the audience. They also know how to temper tension in a play with moments of humour – an essential tool when dealing with the dark subjects of necromancy, greed, lechery, pride… indeed all of the seven deadly sins are presented skillfully to the wanting Faustus. The gentle relief of nervous laughter is palpable as the players occasionally play the clown, with bottom-kicking, peacock-style strutting and sideways glances for the benefit of the audience.

As Faustus nears the inevitable end, you feel that if only he could undo the last 24 years, if only he hadn’t made the pact, then all would be well and he could rejoin the other scholars in their natural quest for knowledge. As the Devil appears, you feel the stab of hopeless remorse that our anti-hero experiences.

A lesson, indeed, to us all.

‘Doctor Faustus’ runs every night at 7.45pm (except Sundays) until March 26. To book tickets call the Box Office on 01865 766266 or visit www.creationtheatre.co.uk

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