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Monday, 21 March 2016
Doctor Faustus, a play almost 500 years old, was chosen as the Joint Production in the year Bolton School celebrates the 500th anniversary of education in Bolton.
Discussions about staging this play began two years ago as the School considered what to perform as part of the 100 and 500 Anniversary celebrations. In the programme, Miss Lord the Director of Drama said, “We very much hope that our presentation of Christopher Marlowe’s work offers an interesting and engaging consideration of Early Modern thought and enquiry, in some measure appropriate to the founding context of education on Bolton.”
Miss Lord added, “A gender-blind policy was used to cast this production; the vast majority of characters in Dr Faustus are male on paper and without a gender-blind approach, it would not have been appropriate to stage Dr Faustus as a Senior Joint Production. In auditions, the self-possession of our lead, Natasha Bagnall, made the choice to ‘re-gender’ Faustus an obvious one.”
Natasha’s accomplished performance certainly proved this to be the case. Beginning as a brilliant and arrogant academic, the audience watched her gleeful use of her newfound powers slowly develop into torment and doubt as her twenty-four years run out. She and Alex O’Loughlin as Mephistophilis dominated the stage throughout Dr Faustus, bringing nuanced and entertaining aspects to their respective characters. Mephistophilis’s distain for Faustus at the beginning of the play returned to haunt the stage at the end, when Alex reappeared in a simpler costume to push Faustus into the waiting arms of the devils, come to drag her into hell.
John Clark added some lighter touches to the evening with his humorous portrayals of various characters, particularly Faustus’s servant Wagner and Gluttony. The cast of Friars, led by Cerys Baines as the Pope, carried out a ridiculous and very funny portrayal of the clergy as they were tormented by the invisible Faustus and Mephistophilis. Jamie McKenna’s scene as the Duchess of Vanholt also added a comic contrast to Faustus’s despair as the play moved towards its dramatic climax, but he also showed his versatility in the much darker role of Belzeub, summoning the seven deadly sins into Faustus’s home.
Iman Orths provided the vocals for two spectacular musical numbers. The first, Björk’s ‘Cosmology’, came at the opening of the play: Iman took the role of a Spirit, singing about the creation of the world, a theme picked up by Faustus later in the first act. Later, as Helen of Troy, she sang ‘Seven Devils’ by Florence and the Machine accompanied by a chorus of cast members and dramatic live percussion, while Faustus was tormented by the pact she had made. Both pieces and Iman’s stunning delivery added to the intense atmosphere.
The ensemble cast’s wild and fearsome portrayal of Devils throughout the play heightened the drama, continually reminding the audience of what awaits Faustus when her time is up. In fact, the audience was engrossed in this atmosphere from the moment they entered: they were greeted with a musical interpretation of ‘Musica Universalis’ or the Music of the Spheres, combined with a simplified digital representation of the solar system. Much of the cast were already on stage, moving silently through red lighting and fog, some in masks and carrying lanterns inspecting the other, more fearful characters. This created at atmospheric opening to the drama about to unfold, very effectively evoking the hell from which Dr Faustus summons her demons.
The ‘Musica Universalis’ track was created by students using improvisation and digital processing following a recording session in the Jack Lyons Concert Hall and Trevor Jones Studio at the University of York. Pupils also created three more pieces – ‘Spiral’, ‘Summoning’ and ‘Damned’ – for the production. Live percussion was added during the performance to push the engagement of a live show, to great effect.
The Royal Exchange Theatre’s fabulous costumes added yet another element to the Joint Production, submerging the audience in the period and casting Faustus as a Renaissance scholar. There were also some technical marvels, notably the inscription ‘homo fuge’ on Faustus’s arm, realised with prosthetics, and the Evil Angel’s seven-foot wingspan.
During the interval, the audience was invited to the Riley Centre for refreshments and to enjoy an exhibition of artwork inspired by Dr Faustus. This was arranged by the Arts Council and also featured a short film, an example of rotoscoping, which was created collaboratively by all of the boys in Years 7 and 8 and organised by Year 9 pupil Will Hardy.
There was also interval entertainment in the form of ‘science as magic’. Boys changed the colours of liquids, levitated cards, made the words written on a note disappear and reappear, and repaired a broken test tube, all apparently by magic, and following their amazing displays with scientific explanations. Mr Teasdale came up with the idea for this fascinating addition to the evening, and said, “Knowledge and magic are strong themes within the play. I saw an opportunity to break down barriers between arts and science. The aim was to amaze and educate the audience about the scientific principles behind the tricks.”
A huge amount of work went into the Joint Production this year, not only on the stage but also behind the scenes. The creative involvement across many different year groups came together to create a visually stunning performance across the four-night run.
Miss Lord said, “It has been a pleasure to work with talented students, colleagues and visiting practitioners to produce the show.”
Click here to view a gallery of additional photographs from Doctor Faustus.
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