Issue 170 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



A modern hell

Doctor Faustus
by Christopher Marlowe

Title page of the 1624 edition
Title page of the 1624 edition

The story is a legend from the middle ages: a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. In its original form the contract is a straightforward struggle between good and evil.

But the story's appeal changed with the growth of modern society. Faust became a symbol of the aspiration to overstep the limits laid down by traditional authority, to understand the secrets of nature and to gain mastery over the world. Faustus is turned into a rebel, but a rebel whose contract with dangerous powers destroys him in the process.

Marlowe, writing his play in the 1580s and 1590s, was the first modern writer to develop this side of the Faust legend. In part he is still stuck with the medieval framework--there are good and bad angels, real devils, magic and sorcery. But more importantly he presents us with a character who rejects all the old authorities in philosophy, medicine, law and theology as inadequate to what human beings are capable of thinking and doing.

His pact with Mephistopheles is a chance to explore the limits of knowledge and of the physical world. This was the age of the rebirth of learning, of the conquest of the New World and of shattering advances in science. Faust reflects all three. He wants to relive the glories of the pagan world, gather together the riches of the world and delve into the causes of things. He is a kind of glorified Elizabethan adventurer.

But he is doomed--not just in the medieval sense of being damned for all eternity with the pains of hell. He also begins to realise that his appetite is larger than the means to satisfy it and that the powers he summons up are not his to control. He 'is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells', as Marx was much later to describe the capitalist class.

It is this tension between aspiration and fulfilment that gives irony to the dialogue between Faustus and Mephistopheles which dominates the play. The devil never ceases to tell Faustus where his ambitions will take him--and Faustus never ceases to disbelieve in the devil until too late.

Staging the play always presents difficulties because it is an uneasy mix of medieval and modern and because the text is corrupt, some of it by a collaborator interested in injecting an element of farce. This production cuts most of the tedious bits and settles for a modern setting, with Faustus as a student living in a dilapidated one bedroom flat. This ignoring of the historical dimension creates some problems, particularly with the chorus, Faustus's conjuring up of the devil and the slapstick scene when Faust taunts the pope and the cardinal (it would have appealed to the Protestant audiences of the day).

But the production works much better with the relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles, who is played magnificently as a cool and calculating cynic. And the stage effects are superb, particularly the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. That alone is worth going for.

It is the energy and sweep of the poetry which drives the play forward. The famous lines addressed to Helen of Troy: 'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?/Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,' are only one example of Marlowe's mighty verse to enjoy.

Modern society from Marlowe's time to our own has been haunted by the Faustian dilemma of whether the limitless growth of human power does not involve a devil's pact with self destruction. This production gets something of that across. See it while you can.
Gareth Jenkins
Doctor Faustus is at Greenwich Theatre, London, till 11 December

One man and his dog

One man
by Steven Berkoff

 Steven Berkoff
Steven Berkoff

There are three separate parts to this new one man production from Berkoff. The first, 'Tell Tale Heart', is an adaptation from the master of horror, Edgar Allen Poe--a tale of terror, murder and madness presented with manic humour (sounds like one or two branch meetings I've been to).

The second, 'Actor', is a brilliantly observed and heartfelt piece on an actor's search for work. It went down very well with the thespian audience that this master of technique and invention attracts.

But the funniest playlet is the final one, 'Dog'. In it Berkoff plays an East End lager lout, and his dog Roy. Roy's master is a racist but he has a 'Paki mate' who's alright because he runs a garage that Roy's master uses. To show that he's not prejudiced Roy's master changes a story about 'a gang of six Pakis' to one about 'a gang of two Pakis, two Irish yobs and two Hasidic Jews out to cause some robbery and violence.'

Berkoff reflects the mixed nature of aspects of working class life with his picture of a crowd on the terraces at Millwall with black, white, men, women and gays standing next to one another shouting on their team.

The playlet is a sympathetic and affectionate portrayal of a semi-lumpen working class lad. When Roy's master gets blind drunk he explains that where he lives he has two options on a Saturday night: go and get slaughtered or stay in and watch telly. It's a far cry from Berkoff's earlier Sink the Belgrano about the Falklands War, when the author had no explanation for war fever other than the popular nationalism of this sort of character.

One Man shows again that Berkoff is one of the most intelligent, witty and inventive artists currently around. Get to see it if at all possible.
Lee Humber
One Man is at the Garrick Theatre London until January.


In the right key

The Piano
Dir: Jane Campion

It's easy to be sceptical when film critics start saying 'best film ever' but with The Piano you can understand why people go overboard with their praise.

Everything about The Piano is top quality: the script, the acting, the music, the directing. Best of all though is the story itself. It's about the 19th century Scottish colonists of New Zealand.

Ada (Holly Hunter) has been mute from the age of six, for no apparent reason. When she stopped speaking the piano became her primary means of expression.

She is packed off from Glasgow to New Zealand, to an unknown country and an unknown man, courtesy of an arranged marriage. Her new husband Stewart (Sam Neill) insists her piano is too difficult to move and so it stays on the beach.

Speaking via her nine year old daughter, Ada persuades the tattooed Baines (Harvey Keitel) to save her piano from the sea. After watching her play it on the beach, he is captivated and the obsessive spiral begins.

Baines strikes a deal with Ada's husband and swaps a parcel of land for the piano. Part of the bargain is for Ada to give Baines piano lessons. He wants to indulge his erotic fantasies and Ada agrees so as to regain possession of her piano.

Meanwhile her husband is tiptoeing about, confused as to why Ada is indifferent to him. He seeks advice from the comical old women, desperately trying to maintain Presbyterian decorum in the wilds of New Zealand.

The film is full of hilarious culture clashes. The stiff and stifling manners of the Presbyterians (God's frozen people--they wouldn't swing if you hung them) contrasts with the open sexuality and honesty of the Maoris.

Director Jane Campion shows how Stewart tries to maintain 'civilised' European politeness and how this unravels violently. The attempt to hold his emotions in check, to do the 'proper' thing, eventually makes him snap. When Stewart's jealousy breaks through the dam, it's as powerful as the passion of Ada and Baines.

While the costumes and trappings are similar to the crop of period films made by Merchant-Ivory, The Piano has none of their niceties. Can you imagine those idyllic productions getting to grips with how you take a piss while wearing those ridiculous dresses complete with hoops?

The Piano is a lush and original movie. It has beautiful piano music (by Michael Nyman), the colours and imagery are very sensuous, and the fleshing out of the characters and the story, with minimal dialogue, make it unmissable.
David Turley

Love hurts

Bound and gagged--a love story
Dir: Daniel B Appleby

Elizabeth and Leslie: obsessive relationship
Elizabeth and Leslie: obsessive relationship

This is a road movie about two bisexual women and a straight guy enmeshed in a web of obsessive relationships. The story focuses on two women who search for personal autonomy through shifting sexual identities.

Elizabeth (Elizabeth Saltarrelli) is in a relationship with Leslie (Ginger Lyn Allen), but needs a man 'every now and again'. Leslie is married to an abusive husband Steve (Chris Mulkey). Aghast at the discovery of his wife's lesbianism Steve attempts a traditional male chauvinist solution.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is trying to console her close friend Cliff (Chris Denton), who is shell-shocked at the break-up of his marriage but whose suicide attempts keep failing. Elizabeth wants to help him shake off his obsession with his estranged wife. She persuades Cliff to assist her in kidnapping Leslie so as to cure her of her lingering dependence.

The film's title is ironic since we are presented with an image of love based on power and dependency. The most positive and least power laden relationship is the friendship between Elizabeth and Cliff. There are good moments of black humour, as when Elizabeth justifies her kidnapping of Leslie by telling her she did it out of love. The film's central theme is the predatory and possessive quality of love relationships in our society.

The other side of this is the insight offered into the distortion and fragmentation of individuals. Although our society trumpets its commitment to the individual, the reality is that capitalism produces people who feel that they count for nothing, that they are tiny cogs in a wheel.

Strong performances from the leading players convey well this contradiction: individuals who officially believe that their lives belong to them but who, at a deeper level, feel a lack of inner substance.

The film is one-sidedly bleak. Even in our society people do struggle to build and preserve relationships based on recognition of one's own and the other's autonomy. The film ignores this contradictory aspect of modern relationships, that generally they consist both of love and domination. However it offers us its vision with courage if not total conviction.
Sabby Sagall

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