Doctor Faustus is a story about the dark arts - a scholar who practices magic and sells his soul to the Devil. But this production is all about light.

Colin Falconer‘s stage is delineated by a web of spot and striplights, twisting knotted wires and shelves laden with technological paraphernalia. Occasionally it is flooded with Hansjorg Schmidt‘s lighting design, but mostly it’s used sparingly for specific effect. In this Doctor Faustus light is magic, and magic is power.

That idea of a web is fitting for a company called Tangle. They’re South West England’s African Caribbean Theatre Company, who celebrate theatre from across the globe in a blend of African and Western traditions. That’s certainly true of this Faustus: a sixteenth century Elizabethan tragedy performed by an all-black cast of three in modern dress. It’s an Afro-Futurist vision of the play, dark and disturbing and intensely atmospheric.

The use of light certainly brings magic to the production, be it celestial spotlights, neon ritual circles or handheld lights. There’s singing too, both African and Latin chants that haunt with delicate a capella harmonies.

Yet despite its unique setting, this Doctor Faustus production doesn’t quite thrill as much as it should. For all the small touches of light, it’s too dim and static, bleeding from one shadowy scene to the next. The focus of director Anna Coombs is clearly on the text rather than bringing the story to life with a dynamic interpretation.

That said, the performances from the cast are superb. Joshua Liburd is an authoritative Faustus who commands the stage and speaks the poetry eloquently. Mogali Masuku and Munashe Chirisa play multiple roles with seeming ease – the former predominantly a cool Mephastophilis, the latter an ever-amusing stage presence that has the audience in fits of laughter. It’s a dark and tragic story, but there are moments of humour too.

With such a reduced cast and a condensed script (it’s just 90 minutes long), this Doctor Faustus is an ambitious undertaking that feels a little too compact – a grander approach to staging and a larger cast will bring further clarity to the narrative. Yet there’s an intimacy to this production too and a tight focus on the performances – for the most part quite literally under a spotlight.

 

 

★★★☆☆

Doctor Faustus ran at Arcola Theatre as a touring production. For further information, please visit the company website.