Dr Faustus By Christopher Marlowe Liverpool Playhouse Theatre February 4-26 Tel: 0151 709 4776
Director Philip Wilson doesn't want audiences to know this in advance, but in directing a play which asks: "What we might sell our soul for, and if we have already sold our souls", he sees Faustus as inventing his own Mephistopheles and imagining the world he visits during the play. It's a concept Phillip wishes to see emerge in audience minds as Faustus, a modern-day scholar, works in a university library combining, through Michael Britton's designs, modern times with the Renaissance, when Marlowe studied at Cambridge.
In place of the 16th century's belief in hell - Martin Luther flung an ink-pot at a devil presumptuous enough to visit him in Wittenberg, where Faustus studied - "now everyone has a personal vision." Other students in this university dabble in magic, but Faustus goes further; his only limitations being those of his imagination. He goes on an Alice in Wonderland-style mental journey as "the single location becomes a springboard to various places - he goes where his mind takes him."
This "magical" journey is not linear. Philip notes how the verse varies; sometimes regular iambics, elsewhere stuffed with extra syllables or, as at the start of scene five, chopped into abrupt sections. Faustus often refers to himself in the third person, and as he moves towards destruction he also gains in confidence, from verbal hesitancy to eloquent praise of Helen of Troy (played by a male actor, to distance the character from a beauty contest in the mind of the audience, and doubled with Faustus's servant to suggest an imaginative projection).
In conjuring up the classical paradigms of beauty and military prowess (Alexander the Great), Faustus achieves something; with the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt, whose appetite he fulfils, Faustus the bookish scholar learns social success. Yet there's a negative aspect to this mind-journey.
In place of anti-Catholic jokes at the Pope's expense, Wilson's protagonist follows Marlowe's source, The English Faust Book, by punching the pontiff in the face. And the horse-courser's severed leg is no prop, but a prosthetic - as if the trick might leave the man unable to walk.
Faustus's journey brings its gains: "We can't say he does not get anything from the pact," Philip asserts, and this is reflected in the sumptuous colours and Baroque splendour bursting into his dark library. However, the play ends in the depths of despair, as it asks: "What do we do when we have what we want?"