Theatre reviews: Doctor Faustus, Glasgow | Birdsong, Glasgow

The cast of Birdsong. Picture: Contributed
The cast of Birdsong. Picture: Contributed
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AN update of the Faust story has good ideas but lacks a clear moral dimension, while the power of a tale set in the Great War is defused by a paucity of theatrical ambition.

Doctor Faustus

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

* * *

Birdsong

King’s Theatre, Glasgow

* * *

OF ALL the shows in this year’s spring theatre season in Scotland, the new Citizens’ Theatre/West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production of Doctor Faustus is perhaps the one that invites the highest expectations. Directed by the Citizens’ artistic director Dominic Hill, this version of the Faust story weaves Christopher Marlowe’s mighty 1594 text around new material by Colin Teevan, the writer who made such a brilliant contribution to Hill’s great 2007 production of Peer Gynt, created at Dundee Rep. It boldly updates the tale, offering Faustus not just magical gifts, but a very 21st-century kind of showbiz success and fame, culminating in a wild night at one of the great Las Vegas fun palaces, with a US President in attendance. And above all, it features a magnificent, show-stopping performance from the dazzling Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles.

For all that, though, this brave, ambitious Faustus – aching with potential at every turn – seems to me like a show that misses its mark, if its aim is to find a persuasive modern voice for a tale about a man who sells his soul to the devil, in return for a brief 24-year lifetime of earthly pleasures. It pictures Faustus as a postmodern geek, crouched over his laptop in a grubby bedsit, contemptuous of God and man because he has lost his parents in a cruel accident. It’s a striking image, but Kevin Trainor, as Faustus, rushes at Marlowe’s mighty, sinewy and frightening stage poetry in a strangely mannered style, like a man intent on getting it over and done with, rather than on teasing out for a contemporary audience the emotional meaning of Marlowe’s restlessness, and the impulse that makes him strike his fatal bargain.

The show is at its strongest in its central section, written by Colin Teevan, which offers a modern equivalent to Marlowe’s images of Faustus’s 24-year career across the earth, with Mephistopheles in tow, bamboozling world leaders with magical tricks, and turning corrupt churchmen into rats. In this version, Faustus becomes a celebrity magician, surrounded by shrieking fans, winning huge wealth and status. Trainor is in fine form as the sleazy celebrity Faustus, all sparkling silver jackets and caviar snacks; Redmond is simply dazzling as she transforms her luscious, sexually ambiguous Mephistopheles into his glamorous stage assistant, in a coldly tilted top hat or clinging red chiffon. And there are some terrific conjuring tricks (courtesy of illusionist James Freedman), as well as fine dance sequences evoking the relentless meaninglessness of it all, superbly put together by movement director Kally Lloyd-Jones.

Yet somehow, the moral arc of Faustus’s story never seems convincing; and the closing scenes, where Faustus returns home to his bedsit to await the moment when hell will claim him, are often simply dull, as Trainor once again rushes the poetry, and fails to find an emotional path through it. The result is a show that offers many brilliant moments, one shudderingly memorable performance and a few good jokes about bankers, without really gripping the heart and mind as a whole drama; and audiences making their way to the Citizens’ can expect to be interested, and often entertained, without being astonished or changed, or even much moved.

“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” It’s the most famous line spoken by Mephistopheles to Faustus; and it must have passed through the minds of a few of those who fought and died on the Western Front during the the First World War, as they contamplated humankind’s apparently infinite capacity to create a hell on Earth. In the last few years, as the centenary of 1914 approaches, there has been no shortage of stage shows set in the trenches, From Journey’s End and All Quiet On The Western Front to John Wilson’s For King And Country. And now, in Glasgow this week, there is Original

Theatre’s stage version of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel Birdsong, famous from a television mini-series, which counterpoints the horror of the trenches with the story of a young British officer, Stephen Wraysford, and his doomed love affair with Isabelle, the young wife of the brutal Amiens factory-owner in whose house Stephen lodges.

The difficulty with Birdsong is that, on stage as on the page, it presents an odd mixture of the immensely truthful and powerful, and the tastelessly self-absorbed. Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version is at its best in its portrayal of the relationships amongsoldiers at the front, facing near-certain death at any moment; Arthur Bostrom gives a superb performance as Adams, the ordinary soldier, husband and father who becomes Stephen’s greatest soulmate in the trenches.

In the end, though, the novel and the play just cannot resist the impulse to foreground the novelettish stuff of Stephen’s obsession with Isabelle, and his self-absorbed ramblings both about his feelings for her, and about the horrors of war. The result is a very slow-moving dramatic experience, sometimes intense, but often excessively wordy, and full of false climaxes and multiple endings. The experience described here is such a vital one, in our history, that any well-crafted telling of it has huge value; Faulks’s story makes us feel in our bones the impossibility of ever returning fully to “normal life”, after such horror. Yet it’s hard to feel that Birdsong adds much to the already vast presence of the First World War in our culture; and it resists dramatisation to the point where, despite Wagstaff’s best efforts, this stage show often feels more like a distantly observed television drama, not yet quite fully edited, and a good 20 minutes too long.

• Doctor Faustus runs until 27 April; Birdsong until 13 April.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

SHE’S best known to audiences for her appearances in television shows like Midsomer Murders and Holby City. Yet Siobhan Redmond is one of Scotland’s greatest stage actors; and her breathtaking performance as the fiend Mephistopheles lights up Colin Teevan and Dominic Hill’s bold new take on the Doctor Faustus story, at the Citizens’. Full of blazing glamour, speaking in a strange, deep voice that seems drawn straight from Hades, Redmond’s Mephisto is the very image of an irresistible demon, near omnipotent on earth, yet with a soul forever trapped in the tormenting emptiness of hell; in a show that demands to be seen, for this performance alone.