Theatre review: Doctor Faustus, Glasgow

Bard in the Botanics delivers a fine Faustus despite having a cast of only three people. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Bard in the Botanics delivers a fine Faustus despite having a cast of only three people. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

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Most standard editions of Christopher Marlowe’s mighty 1588 play Dr Faustus list 28 characters on stage, so it’s a measure of the radical energy writer-director Jennifer Dick brings to this new adaptation – as well as of the limited resources the Bard In The Botanics season brings to its annual summer magic – that this wild, noisy, and sometimes thrilling 90 minutes of theatre somehow succeeds in telling the story through just three actors.

Doctor Faustus | Botanic Gardens, Glasgow | Rating ****

On the narrow playing space in the Kibble Palace – itself like a small earthly vision of heaven to generations of Glaswegians – designer Carys Hobbs places just an old desk with some books, a screen showing some astronomical symbols, and a couple of boxes full of old theatrical costumes. And here Adam Donaldson’s already frenzied Faustus moves frantically to and fro, beset on the one hand by Stephanie McGregor’s fiercely seductive Mephistopheles, a moth-like post-punk figure in a fabulous leather corset and black face-paint, and on the other by the tall blue-and-gold figure of Ryan Ferrie’s good angel, a gently bisexual embodiment of pure, unquestioning love and care.

As in all good version of Faustus, of course, Mephistopheles’s seductions of earthly glory soon turn out to be mere tat; to be a Pope or an Emperor, or the one who dazzles and dominates Popes and Emperors, amounts to little more than access to the dressing-up-box of life, and to some mouldy old pieces of finery lit by the dazzle of our own wishful thinking. And sometimes, in Dick’s version, the effort of representing Faustus’s 24 years of earthly adventuring with only three actors becomes a little confused and confusing, as the good angel morphs into the Emperor of Germany, then into Helen of Troy.

Towards the end of the play, though, Dick begins to transform her three-person Faustus into an extraordinary howl of rage against the horror of damnation, delivered not only by Donaldson’s Faustus – now fast running out of levels of desperation to which he can push his voice and body – but by McGregor’s extraordinary Mephistopheles, suffering some huge internal struggle between her love for Faustus, and her eternal fate as a howling demon.

As stories of possession and demonic power go, this is about as luridly complex as it gets, with the show’s mighty soundscape and Marlowe’s poetry lifting the drama to spine-tingling heights; and offering a memorable finale to one of the most impressive Bard In The Botanics seasons of the last 20 years.

• Until 30 July

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