Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

I made a pact with the Playhouse: to go and see Doctor Faustus on a complementary ticket but in return, blog about it. I did the deal but often, these pacts turn out badly.

In some ways, it reminded me of being back at school, the play would only make sense to me if I were studying it line by line for A level English.

I never studied Doctor Faustus at school, although I knew the story of course – a man sells his soul to the devil – so the archaic language at the start of this production filled me with foreboding. The English language from the 16th century is impenetrable for a 21st century inhabitant which is why close study of the text is required (and possibly why the programme has a complete transcript of the play). There was even Latin thrown into the mix as Faust attempts to raise a demon with his incantations (which immediately made me think of what Harry Potter and its pig-Latin might invent in such a scene: “Murdochus appearum” perhaps?).

I managed to roughly follow the arguments of Faustus with Mephistopheles as he decides whether to sell his soul or not. Unfortunately, the logical fallacies involved set me off on my own train of thought and I wondered what would happen if the feuding neighbour of Faustus also sold his soul at the same time and they came to diabolical blows – who would have precedence, is there a hierarchy to evil, or does human ingenuity still have a part to play in such matters?

For me, the one unexpected moment in the play occurred here (spoiler alert) when the first manifestation of the demon wriggled from beneath the bed covers in a truly disturbing manner. If only the entire play had been produced along these horror lines, I might have been genuinely moved.

Fortunately, the new additions to the play written by Colin Teevan were in modern English and were set in modern times. This meant I could relax my concentration on the language somewhat and enjoy the writing and the performances instead. These additions were cynical, comic and topical in their tone and suggested that the production was falling between two stools – the gothic horror of the original and the scatological slapstick of the modern. Given a choice, I would have much preferred that the play had opted for the latter direction as it simply made it more relevant. The throwaway sideswipe at the bankers, for example, selling their souls to Mephistopheles suddenly came alive with genuine moral evil and injustice.

I also found that the old stories from the past suffered from our moral progress today. Mephistopheles’ story of his beloved girlfriend being traded like a trinket amongst the court circle didn’t invoke the same sort of sympathy that it might have aroused in the 16th century. It simply made me appalled at the attitude towards women at the time.

During the interval, Phil Kirby gave me some information about Marlowe himself and to be honest, I found this information a lot more interesting than the play; to be an atheist during the time that Marlowe was alive must have been as dangerous and isolating as a politician today declaring their interest in paedophilia. I wanted to learn more about the playwright as a result.

Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors? There is successful theatre out there, I’m sure of it. For many young people today their theatre of choice is the arena hosting a favourite band whose songs no doubt, speak to them intimately. Add to this the thunder, lights and pyrotechnics on the stage and you have an emotional charge to reckon with. Yes, in that context I can see how such a performance can move an audience.

So, did Doctor Faustus move me? No. Was it entertaining? Yes, mildly.

Not so much Mephisto then as ‘Meh’.

5 Responses to “Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse”

  1. Phil Kirby says:

    I’m often more interesting than the play … perhaps I ought to have complementary tickets to talk to me?

  2. Luke Taylor says:

    Your pondering on the purpose of a given performance raises an interesting thought.

    “Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors?”

    You mention early on that you found yourself almost re-writing the play in your minds eye. For me, I find that to be the purpose of a lot of art.

    When I studied my MA in Strategy and International Security we discussed the role of theory. What we agreed was that even bad theory is useful. How? Well, as long as we’re critically aware where it’s faults lie; we can often find our mind catapulted down some intriguing, new, tangent of thought.

    Now, while this production as said, wasn’t so much bad as it was ‘Meh’ – perhaps on reflection would you agree that if was useful in inspiring some pretty cool offshoots of thought?

    As long as we approach art and study with an open mind – not allowing ourselves to become bogged down in ’scoffing’ at what we consider poor – we can find ourselves awash in some really inspired thinking.


  3. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Thanks for the comment Phil and your brilliantly diplomatic criticism of my spelling. You’ll be pleased to note that I have amended the offending word. ;-)

  4. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Thanks Luke for such an insightful comment. Any new experience can produce offshoots of thought without it being ‘art’. A debate about what art is for example, can include more exploration than a geologist looking for oil.

    The golden rule I always apply to a work of art is ‘does this move me in any way?’ If it turns out to be a purely intellectual response – “I’ve no idea what these pieces of wood are supposed to mean” – then for me, the work is no ‘better’ than a surreal ad for a bottle of perfume.

    I can admire the work that has gone into a piece and the effort put in by the actors etc but I can admire a large building in the same way. I have long since accepted that all art is subjective and that the only criteria that can be applied to it is a) someone calls it art (usually the artist) and b) enough people agree with the artist to define the work as art.

    As it happens, simply being in the theatre and watching the play gave me an idea – ‘Bettakultcha, the stage play’. So the possibilities of what can be done with the facilities available is always presented in any play, regardless of the quality of the content. So you are right, the phenomenon of art producing more art is a real one and you also have to start somewhere.

  5. Luke Taylor says:

    Absolutely agree, intellectual gymnastics and inspired thought can spring from anywhere.

    As to what defines art, yes, subjectivity absolutely. In fact subjectivity is a fascinating subject – I may have to ponder and write something about it.

    So yes, this is me, starting somewhere!


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