Faustus and the Snakes

Mon 19th – Sat 24th August 2013

reviews

Hannah Greenstreet

at 22:25 on 22nd Aug 2013

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‘Faustus and the Snakes’ is a mashup between Marlowe and contemporary gang culture - Jacobean tragedy and Tarantino - and the crazy concoction results in a great high. In Laurence Quilty’s inventive reworking of this classic morality play, Dr John Faustus has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge but drug problems have led him back to the estate he grew up on. Faustus’ escape plan is to make a new hallucinogenic narcotic called necromancine but this only leads him into further trouble, including a bloody feud, a police presence, and a pact with the devil.

Quilty’s production is full of details that will delight audience members who know Marlowe’s original: the Mephistopheles character tells John that he can call him Meth for short; Helen was the face that launched a postcode war, “with a body that burnt up ten blocks”. John’s pact with the devil seems more of a hallucination due to taking his own drug necromancine than dark magic. As well as this, in a pleasing irony, almost all the characters, even the gangsters, have biblical names, including the four apostles, Trinity and Mercy.

However, the adaptation is not always successful - the character of the gun-toting policeman, partly the writing and partly how it is played, crosses the line between credulity and disbelief. There also seem to be too many characters given the brevity of the play; the nurses and the estate residents seem more like set dressing than meaningful characters, and the latter category have almost painfully exaggerated accents. Indeed, the play would have benefitted from being slightly longer; as it stands, the ending feels slightly abrupt and contrived.

Nonetheless, the acting is mostly good. Winston Obi is particularly strong in the lead role of John, playing his change from idealist to cynical gang lord, complete with the physical ticks of addiction to necromancine, which apparently include “rolling your head in tiny figure of eight motions.” Lizzie Fitzpatrick also succeeds in her characterisation of Mercy, who is murdered when John’s juggling of dealers goes horribly wrong, and represents the last shred of morality in a debauched and corrupt world.

Despite a couple of minor flaws, ‘Faustus and the Snakes’ raises big questions and proves that Marlowe’s story of ambition is vitally relevant to a modern audience.

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Evy Cavalla

at 13:26 on 23rd Aug 2013

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'Faustus and the Snakes' is an ambitious reworking of the classic Faustian tale: this piece of original writing transports Faustus to a London estate in the present day. The show fuses the eternal conflict between good and evil with the drug-cooking of 'Breaking Bad' and dialogue reminiscent of 'Shameless'. The ideas explored are absorbing, and the dialogue contains flashes of brilliance, but an overly complicated denouement and flawed direction mean the plot and characters cannot be fully convincing.

Scenes where the characters snorted powder and discussed the money they were planning to make from their new drug were sometimes flabby, and the entrance of new characters was often a relief after drawn-out discussions. Characters spoke over each other, but the transition from speaker to speaker often felt mechanical rather than spontaneous. Faustus is a compelling protagonist but not an endearing one: his drug dependency is central to the plot but it sometimes acts as a barrier, preventing the audience from empathising with him fully.

However, these flaws require slightly tighter direction and minor cuts to the script. The entrance of new characters was sometimes a relief, but also a source of excitement. The opening in John’s dingy flat is deliberately claustrophobic; other characters appear in quick succession, bringing new opinions, motives and accents with them into an already highly-charged situation (Helen was particularly assured and watchable). The play is well-paced: it crescendos into an action-packed finish, with enough guns and revelations to keep everyone entertained.

Nevertheless, the denouement should have less dialogue. There are beautiful sections of this text – Mercy’s speech to John when she speaks to him from beyond the grave is especially lyrical – but Mephistopheles’ oily business-speak loses its impact after several long, cryptic monologues, and it doesn’t help that these take place while Faustus is apparently experiencing heart failure. The sense of urgency created by his imminent death detracts from the devil’s speech, and the ins and outs of why Luke, a local heavy, faked his own death were explained too hurriedly.

However, the script is pleasantly ambiguous about good and evil: no character is entirely good, and the shades of grey between amorality and immorality give food for thought. There are also clever details: the ‘snakes’ of the title refer to the idea of necromancy, as a quirk of a necromancine addiction is a dull swaying of the head, recalling the bobbing of a charmed snake. The script also passes comment on consumerism in a post-Thatcher society, and the political undertones are not heavy-handed. This show needs to be more stream-lined, but the cast is talented and aspects of the writing very strong indeed.

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