The Greeks liked to finish off a day of tragedy with a cleansing comedy; the medieval mystery play had little concern for stage trickery, content to have its characters emerge with their moral message from a quotidian frame; the early moderns liked to combine those moral absolutes with the more shaded themes of ancient Greece. It is the combination of these disparate statements about theatre that has inspired a joint bill of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Ben Jonson’s The Devil Is An Ass at the White Bear Theatre in South London.
The former needs little introduction, but you could be excused for never having heard of the latter. It sat on library shelves between 1616 and 1972, and has been dusted off only once more since that date. If you can imagine a 1920s drawing room farce, crossed with a classic Jacobean city comedy, that pretty well sums it up – a convoluted plot and plenty of laughs, if you’d like the non-academic version.
Together, these make an interesting evening, a window on to overlapping frames of theatre history. And much of the production – and particularly the quality of the acting – is high-class. There are, however, a couple of irritating flaws.
First, the highlights: Richard Keightley makes a fine, tormented but human Faustus, see-sawing between high hopes and fear, while Matt Robinson is a broken-voiced, nearly shattered, impressive Mephastophilis. The clowning too is often well done: Andrew Shepherd, as Wagner, Faustus’s servant, might owe something to Black Adder’s Baldrick but is only the more fun for that recognition. Charlie Palmer as Robin, the peasant fool who is the mirror of Faustus – he steals one of the doctor’s books and thus manages to summon an irritated Mephastophilis from Constantinople, milks the laughs nicely, well backed by his companion in foolish adventure, Rafe (Richard Keynes).
And for a play so long on the shelf, The Devil Is An Ass, provided you don’t give yourself a devil of a headache by trying to actually make sense of the plot, is fun. It is even mildly feminist (although I doubt Johnson meant it that way) in exposing the vulnerability of Frances Fitz-dottrel to the financial ineptitude of her foppish, foolish husband. We meet him showing off his gaudy new cloak, the prize for allowing Wittipol (Robert Wilson) an hour of conversation with his wife. He thinks he’s found the way to do this without risk — his wife is not allowed to speak — but like all exercises of Fitz-dottrel “cleverness” this is soon overturned by his opponent and, it seems, he’s soon destined to wear the cuckhold’s horns.
But Frances, played subtly by Charlotte Ammerlaan as a flower of English womanhood, while being — after the frustrations of married life — ready to be tempted, is made of sterner stuff, and she turns this into a chance to set out her case. Her husband has thrown away her inheritance, and her friends’ failure to secure her a jointure threatens to leave her penniless. Can Wittipol help?
Merecraft (Andrew Shepherd again) plays the 17th-century conman — who plans to make Fitz-dottrel “Duke of Drownedland” for a mere Â£12,000 — with the joyous abandon of a time-share salesman on the trail of a hot prospect. Max Berendt is the inept devil Pug – sent down by Lucifer for one last chance at taking on the London market, before being dispatched to the pigsties of Lancashire for his incompetence; crazy shoe fans will just have to go to his.
So there’s lots to enjoy and think about. There are, however, some problems with the staging. The lighting is intrusive in its changes and often throws shadows where there should be light, but the biggest problem arises from the setting – the thin muslin curtains that line the stage.
The idea is fine; walking into the theatre it made me think of the travelling wagon that would have formed the stage for many a medieval and early modern travelling troop. And it offers the potential of fearsome figures and dreadful faces looming in Faustus’s sleeping and waking nightmares. But its usage thus fails to live up to the promise. Okay, in fringe theatre you don’t expect Star Wars-class effects, but this is often just lame. And while central dramatic effects are at centre stage, the attention is too often drawn to thumps, rattles and rustles behind the curtain as the actors position themselves for their next entrance. It is a prosaic point but an important one.
To be fair, last night was the first night – I’d urge close attention be paid to cutting this to a minimum on future nights. There is time: the production continues at the White Bear until March 26. And who could in the end resist a production in which the programme states: “Spirits, devils and deadly sins played by members of the company.”
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