Associate Director of Splendid Productions Ben Hales on the rehearsal process for their upcoming production of Dr Faustus
It’s late August 2019. For the last two weeks we’ve been hiding away in the drama hall of the Halley Academy in South London, piecing together our new production, Dr Faustus.
Splendid specialise in creating stripped-back, provocatively political, highly theatrical productions for young audiences, and Dr Faustus is now only a week away from embarking on a six-month tour of schools, colleges and theatres across the UK.
This is a familiar experience for Team Splendid, led by Artistic Director Kerry Frampton. Since Kerry set up the company in 2004 we have spent every August sitting in a dark room with a small group of incredibly talented performers and theatre-makers doing what we love the most: having snacks, laughing, debating, scratching our heads, having some more snacks, and creating punchy, powerful, precise, funny, heartfelt theatre.
Christopher Marlowe’s play from the late 1500s is an all-time classic: the vain scholar Dr Faustus sells his soul to the Devil for twenty-four years of unlimited power. But in an all-too human way, Faustus’ ideas for wielding unlimited power are strangely small and unambitious. He trades something valuable (being a respected doctor), to become little more than a travelling showman, and it’s only when it’s too late that he understands that his soul was worth much more than the hollow rewards the sale of it bought him.
Our version of the story is told by a chorus of three devils, who take on all the roles between them (and play the live music, dance, sing and even perform one or two amazing illusions). It’s a huge task for our talented cast, Grace Goulding, Tanya Muchanyuka and Nick Crosbie. This is a story that includes all-powerful supernatural devils, embittered servants, emperors, dukes and knights, towns full of medieval Germans, and the world’s poorest man, alongside the central character of Faustus, who has to convey an extraordinary range of emotion from euphoric delight to deepest despair – sometimes all of this in the space of a scene. Splendid’s style uses very little set, costume and props, and relies heavily on the actors’ skill in changing character, scene and atmosphere right in front of the audience’s eyes.
This kind of performance-centred theatre would have been very familiar to Marlowe. In the Elizabethan era theatre was a rowdy business in an inn courtyard, where the actors had to command a beery audience’s attention with the power of their words, their personalities, and the occasional firework. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is as much a crowd-pleasing comedy spectacle as it is a tragic morality play, and we’ve been working hard to make sure our version brings out both sides of this brilliant story.
It’s been a wonderful experience watching the cast juggling all of these elements, and becoming more hilarious and more terrifying each day. I’m very much looking forward to seeing whether a modern audience falls for their charms… Splendid’s Dr Faustus: sell your soul to see it!
Book tickets for Dr Faustus [here]