Engaging new adaptation of Marlowe’s classic tale, with moments of great theatrical frisson

A sparsely dressed, half-lit stage littered with books and a man in bedraggled tweed layers. He paces, frets and mopes in frustration about the tomes – none of them provide sufficient challenge or stimulus for his vaulting ambition to take flight.

So begins this compacted yet carefully staged reading of Faustus by the emerging Green Room Productions at the Crescent Arts Centre. Adapted and directed by Patsy Hughes, this judicious parsing of Christopher Marlowe’s take on the old German fable necessitates a more metaphorical and psychoanalytical take on Faustus’ Mephistophelean pact.

The action is laid out with admirable clarity. Each chapter ('Faustus Conjures a Devil', 'Faustus Travels', 'Faustus Finds Fame') is projected large in stark white lettering across the stage. The Weimar Cabaret song that pungently heralds each new episode in the rise and demise of Faustus also successfully evokes a mood of ironic contemplation. Faustus’ summoning of Mephistopheles and the pair’s subsequent wranglings are inferred to be a dialogue within himself. The devil he conjures is, as it were, advocate for his own materialist predisposition.

It’s a testimony to the versatility, and murky mystery behind the Faustus tale that it has been told many times in varying guises, even Marlowe’s version having several editions. In Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto for example, the protagonist Höfgen’s blatantly ironic dream of wanting to play Mephistopheles on stage is fulfilled in return for his simple complicity with the Nazi regime. The character’s descent into hell is thereby instigated from the moment he makes that unspoken Faustian pact.

In this 'age of the individual', it is fitting in this instance that Faustus as played by the impressive Shaun Blaney is really wrangling with himself and his own true nature – is personal morality the only hindrance to his achieving success?

It would be tempting to draw parallels with Faustus’ all-too-quick submission to avarice (and the attendant self-delusion that he can use his elevated position for greater moral good) and the current real-life batch of amoral mountebanks who’ve wrecked the economy without incurring punishment. They are all similarly top-loaded with a jaw-dropping conviction of their own moral rectitude. When Faustus flippantly considers 'What good is my soul?', he utters the cry of self-justifying bankers everywhere.

Mephistopheles the devil is in some ways the conscience of Faustus, the constant reminder of his frailty, weakness and disingenuous stabs at pained reflection. And Blaney indeed plays the devil as calm, reasonable and gentle, even where Faustus the charlatan is brash, melodramatic and forever playing the tortured soul to the fullest.

Blaney does indeed imbue his Faustus with all the vagaries of an unsympathetic narcissist. It may be necessary to demonstrate the corrupting influence of power on an ambitious mind, but also leaves the audience somewhat inured to the tragedy of Faustus’ inevitable fate. When the chickens finally come home to roost and he shamelessly lambasts God for forsaking him, it’s with all the impotent unedifying rage of the posthumous repentance.

On this occasion, there is of course no bailout. It’s rare that Schadenfreude makes for the satisfying denouement to a play, and it’s all the more welcome here for it, although you perhaps yearn for a little of the pathos that makes Marlowe’s Faustus that bit more wretchedly human.

A dramatic epilogue, wherein Faustus consumed in the hellish inferno of his own making transmogrifies into a sinister black arm-banded character gathering all the books strewn across the stage isn’t particularly subtle in its symbolism, but nonetheless makes its point well enough.

There are moments of great theatrical frisson throughout – such as the invocation of the devil coinciding with the juddering rumble of a train passing by outside (I’m convinced that all theatrical productions in the Crescent are timed to take advantage of the proximity of Botanic Station). There’s the thrill of recognition of such infernal idioms as 'misery loves company' and a lively performance by Shaun Blaney: a slightly flawed yet crisp and engaging rendition of one of the most resonant and malleable western fables from a young company with some promise.