This revision of Marlowe’s classic Doctor Faustus draws on the timeless story of the man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. A bleak landscape of deprivation and drugs conveys the sense that we are living in an age devoid of meaning or value; more than ever, power and knowledge are objects of desire.
Despite the slightly implausible tale of a PhD gone wrong - boy done good, boy returns to council estate to use chemical science expertise to sell new drug - Faustus and the Snakes draws some pleasing parallels with the original narrative while still retaining its relevance to the present day. However, I took issue with the notion that Dr Faustus’s downfall is due to ‘lack of imagination’, which seemingly bypassed a gleaming opportunity to comment on the cyclical nature of urban life. Indeed, the development of the script was somewhat hindered by a grudging allegiance to Marlowe’s text. In addition, there were some very dodgy stereotypes - the crooked policeman, the drug addict, the Liverpudlian baddie - that let down the wider project of the play.
In addition, the simultaneous attempt to capture urban idiom at the same time as grandiose Faustian passions made the script a little inconsistent; a lot of chat about ‘the stuff’ didn’t manage to convince me that they were down with the kids. The hospital scene was especially sloppy and the dialogue between the doctor and the policeman verged on ridiculous. In fact, the hackneyed characterisation of the copper was ludicrous throughout and wouldn’t have been out of place in a bad episode of Columbo.
Once you’ve got over the clichés, however, Faustus and the Snakes provides an interesting commentary on the demonic tendencies of late capitalism. A culmination of the impulse to create, Faustus’ downfall is symbolic of a consumerist culture searching for meaning in the wrong places. The drug, Necromancine, was a nice touch and hinted at the often otherworldly properties of the marketplace that so easily escape our human grasp.
Playing Mephistopheles, or ‘Meph’, Harry Spencer made a very persuasive devil-on-the-shoulder. I must also hand it to Winston Obi and Jessica Taylor for their stand-out performances as John and Helen. Despite the occasionally clunky script, their acting delivered some undeniably profound moments. Ultimately, the idea behind the production was perhaps greater than its execution, but its bid to tackle the fundamental questions of human power and ambition within the context of contemporary culture was impressive and at times even insightful.