From Below is a new theatre company but you would not know it from Faustus, their debut play. Held outdoors at Hull’s newest performance space, Stage at the Dock, Josh Overton’s script mixes elements of pantomime, fire spinning, satire, flaming swords, biting political commentary and explosive mushroom spores.
This Faustus is like none you have seen before. Gone are the Calvinist undertones and dreary futility rooted in arguments about predestination. Instead of Mephistopheles, we have Asmodius, the king of demons acting as a sort of one-man chorus introducing us to Faustus, a man of many letters and seeking more knowledge still. He is shown a book of magic by his friend Gwydion, stolen from the King’s library, before she is captured by Ponsonby, the morally conscious king’s guard. In his desperation to save his friend, Faustus uses the book to summon Asmodius, agreeing to forfeit his soul in order to prevent Gwydion from losing her head, with the added bonus that he will only be dragged to hell once he has done everything he has wanted to do.
Gwydion is captured on the orders of the King, a character played with undiluted glee by Ed Grimoldby. He is utterly irredeemable – at one point making a plan to sink the UK into the sea by attaching rockets to it and firing it into the sea – but Grimoldby is laugh out loud hilarious, managing to charm the audience who have to be cajoled into booing him. He lacks self-awareness and serves as a wink and a nod to modern day politics. As with so many things in the show, it is the small touches, such as how he chooses to walk, a walk that was immediately copied by the younger members of the audience after, that illustrate how even the smallest details have been considered.
What really stands out when watching this is how much fun all the cast seem to be having. Overton has a real presence and a laugh that you could build a cinematic universe around. Strong manages to make Faustus immediately irritating in a foppish way and shows character development throughout so that by the denouement, you don’t resent his redemptive arc (spoiler alert: this ends very differently to Marlowe’s original). His audience work is also top notch and his ability to react to unexpected situations, such as a low flying helicopter during one of his monologues, ensures the performance maintains levity throughout.
Emily Gray’s Gwydion is brilliant if slightly underutilised. Gray acts with her whole body in a way that keeps the audience engaged with the possibility of imminent hilarity. Her interactions with Strong and Fielding are highlights and she turns small moments into memorable ones through sheer force of personality. There’s a moment where she’s trying to escape and her decision to thrust from the waist for slightly longer than is comfortable brought about one of the biggest laughs of the evening.
The first hour of the show is pitched so well, especially with how it disseminates its politics, that it is jarring when it makes a sudden change in the last act. Before this, it is Jack Fielding’s brilliant Donald Ponsonby that delivers the political message of the show. He is a living embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, consciously aware that the orders he follows are wrong but constantly stating his powerlessness to do anything to change the system he is a pawn for. It is in moments like this, in which the show uses a theatrical style akin to commedia dell’arte to break down complex global financial systems and the problematic nature of unaccountable public figures, that the play is at its strongest. Ponsonby, like the fools in classic Elizabethan theatre, is played for laughs, but it is he that often speaks the plainest truths.
The change to overt didacticism when Gwydion delivers an impassioned monologue on the need to band together against corrupt power structures feels like a constraining misstep and one that isn’t needed. To those that understand the politics of the show, it feels like being hit with a blunt instrument and the show would have been even better if the audience was trusted to infer the political intent of the piece.
Overall, the ending doesn’t take away from what is an entertaining and engaging spectacle. The use of fire is genuinely exciting especially in the flaming swordfights where it is combined with acrobatics in a way that is rarely seen in theatre and is a testament to Grimoldby’s choreography. Thinking back over the show, what stayed with me wasn’t the politics or the fire but the word that was repeated by so many of the audience: whether old or young, the consensus was that it was fun. Making theatre that entertains the forty year old History PhD as much as their ten year old daughter is no easy feat. This isn’t a Faustus for the purists and it is all the better for it.
Faustus ran from 10th-11th September at The Stage at the Dock, Hull. More info here.