Features Q&A and Interviews Published 19 February 2013

Doctor Faustus: The Performance of Evil

Hannah Silva talks to playwright Colin Teevan about his role in the upcoming production of Doctor Faustus.
Hannah Silva

Playwright Colin Teevan has been commissioned to replace acts three and four for the upcoming production of Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In Marlowe’s initial acts, Faustus sells his soul to the devil (brokered by the devil’s servant, Mephistopheles) in exchange for twenty-four years of magical powers.

Teevan sets the action backstage at ‘Doctor Faustus’ the magic show. Faustus is a magician on tour in the contemporary world. Marlowe’s text refers to evil as a “show”; Teevan’s premise of setting the action in the context of a modern magic show is an extension of this. By replacing the centre of the play Teevan has in effect created a traditional three-act structure in which the world is turned upside down in the middle act.

During our conversation, Teevan explained to me that he has not rewritten or ‘updated’ any of Marlowe’s text; this is not Teevan’s version of Faustus, but a play by Teevan and Marlowe.  Teevan calls it “a conversation between two writers” and describes his writing process as “a game of consequences”. In fact it is doubtful that Marlowe was the sole author of the play; in 1602 Philip Henslowe paid four pounds to two other playwrights “for their additions to Doctor Faustus”. Teevan is adding his name to a long tradition of playwrights collaborating with playwrights. 

A lot of my work reflects a desire to make contemporary the classics and to interrogate them. This project continues the work I did with Dominic Hill on Peer Gynt.

The majority of audiences feel comfortable with the classics, as they know what they’re getting, but one of the reasons these are classics is that they were radical in their time. One of the things I am attempting to do is return that radicalness to a classic, so that it has the ability to shock and to say something new. This is what we hope to do with Faustus.

While there’s some great poetry in Marlowe’s text, people can dismiss the play because it comes from a medieval Christian debate that is disconnected to the world we live in. What is it to lose your soul now?

We wanted to find the modern equivalent of what Faustus yearned for. Taking hints from the existing text, we thought of celebrity. Faustus was orphaned very young and brought up in a strict church environment. He has a part of him missing, and a need for love and public affirmation.

Lucifer appears at the end of Marlowe’s Act II and tells a wavering Faustus to “think only of the devil and regard his show”. He conjures up a parade of the seven deadly sins. In the original evil is presented as something superficial and on the surface. That’s the life Faustus buys into.

I came up with the idea that it’s all set backstage at ‘Doctor Faustus’. His life becomes his magic show, and his magic show is his life. Life is a show; the stage is a metaphor for life. We move backstage at the Doctor Faustus show where the drama continues in a modern context.

Your Faustus comes across as rather a sad character. And unlike today’s reality show celebrities, he is working for his fame. If he has magical powers why is he at the mercy of a phone call summoning him to Las Vegas?

The joy and the terror of theatre can be found in watching people chasing their misplaced desires. So I think you’re right, Faustus wants the wrong thing. There is a moment where he tries to do good but he’s warned off. And he really only does that to impress a girl.

In Marlowe’s text there’s a lack of female characters. You readdress this by casting Mephistopheles and Wagner as female. Wagner becomes the love interest, the possible redemption for Faustus. By writing Mephistopheles as female the relationship between her and Faustus is quite different. There’s a lot of sexual power play between them. Faustus tells her: “Now you totter about in fishnets, highheels and tittape at my bidding while I get all the adulation”. But then she reverses this and almost dominatrix-like, she exerts her power over men. She also essentially abuses ‘Wagner’, the other female character in the play, by using her body to have sex with Faustus.

Faustus’ journey echoes the original. Faustus thinks he has Mephistopheles in his or her place and he really doesn’t. If Mephistopheles is a scary devil-man in one sense he always holds the whip but if she is a sexy middle age lady Faustus can think he has the better of her.  In rehearsals Siobhan Redmond said she had to do it because as a woman you’ll never be offered Mephistopheles. She’s older than Kevin Trainor (Faustus) and a powerful performer so at times he looks like a little boy lost on stage. Mephistopheles is a tragic character, it was enjoyable to flesh that out and invent her history.  Wagner is a geeky student who lackeys for Faustus. It’s not surprising Mephistopheles has her for lunch.

Kevin Trainor and Siobhan Redmond in rehearsals. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Kevin Trainor and Siobhan Redmond in rehearsals. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Why did you make the decision not to continue with blank verse?

With Peer Gynt I did keep it going even though it was of an obscene contemporary order. Here I wanted us to really hear Marlowe’s text. If I kept the verse going it would seem like a modern imitation. We also wanted to make the shift as radical as possible. It’s not an attempt to make a modern version of the renaissance world, it’s actually just the modern world.

With its various montages, crossfades and cuts, the script reads a little like a screenplay.

I think that comes from my desire to make it quite modern. Marlowe was writing in the major dramatic form of his day. If Spielberg is our contemporary Shakespeare, Tarantino is our Marlowe. Bodies pile up in Marlowe’s work.

Dominic is a hugely imaginative director. I’ve written a lot of stage directions in the text and I’m fully expecting him to do it in a completely different way. It’s a game, and I trust him as a director. I say ‘Here’s my idea, you come up with something bonkers for this’. In one sense I’m giving him the literal logic of it and he can play around with that. Knowing Dominic I’ll come along to a rehearsal and they’ll be singing stage directions. He’ll use theatre magic as well as actual conjuring.

On the subject of magic, did you think up crazy things then worry about whether or not they were possible later?

Yes, and I did have ideas that I was told wouldn’t be possible. I wanted priests to be turned into rats on stage. Then I said – can we just have some rats?  I was told no.

I had to put the dildo back in as that was a challenge the magicians wanted. Faustus is eating a banana and Mephistopheles turns it into a dildo. The whole choreography budget went on magicians. And very generously Derren Brown has recorded an off-stage role, playing himself. He liked the idea of having sold his soul to the devil.

In your text Faustus is not the only character who signs away his soul. There’s a bit of contemporary satire when a whole group of bankers and businessmen sign away their souls to Mephistopheles who is doing a bit of side business. With so many characters without souls/having sold their souls, does losing a soul really mean anything?

With that scene I was picking up on some of Marlowe’s comic scenes and updating the satire, finding equivalents for the Elizabethan cheap laughs – and bankers seemed to fit the bill, since we’ve had to fit their bill.

Mephistopheles points out that Faustus is different because his soul means something to him. For Faustus at the beginning the selling of his soul is an easy decision but it becomes a hard one. Implicit in his action is a belief in God. The Pope points out to him that in order to believe in the antithesis you have to believe in the thesis. We’re watching the tragedy of someone who does believe selling his soul for present pleasures that in the end turn out to be quite empty.

The first act is in modern dress but it’s Marlowe’s language and later we realise that act is an act in a modern day magic show, Faustus is re-living the loss of his soul over and over. We then think the backstage story is the “real” one, until at the end another character appears and gives a critique of the “show” and her critique includes the backstage material. Is Faustus already in hell?

Hell is the perpetuation of the performance. On one level life is a play, a series of moments; it’s the Beckettian idea of the light between two darknesses. In Waiting for Godot the characters ask “will we do the same tomorrow?” In rehearsals we’ve been talking about the audience and then the fictional audience. I hope what will happen is that the audience will find that their own role in the work shifts between the real and the fictional.

The ephemerality of theatre makes it a wonderful form with which to express this. The ephemerality of pleasure is expressed within the form itself. There are plays within plays, we grasp at reality and there’s nothing to hang onto. That’s the idea behind every aspect of this work, including the elliptical nature of the end. Which world did Faustus really live in? And yet he lived in all periods. I see the play as a trompe l’oeil. The structure is like a magic trick.

Ultimately it’s a play about despair. Right until the end people tell Faustus “it’s not too late”. His heroism lies in the fact that he sticks to the deal he made. His pride is bigger than his sense of eternal damnation – which makes him incredibly scary and straight but also a strangely honourable character.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Doctor Faustus runs from 23rd February – 16th March 2013. For tickets visit the WYP website. 

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Hannah Silva is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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