October Play – ‘Mephistopheles’: Previewed

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“Cheer! As Marlowe’s towering masterpiece blazes defaced and vandalised across the stage! Cry ‘bravo’! To passion, romance, adventure! From the deepest circle of Hell to the innermost recesses of his demon heart, Mephistopheles drives mortals mad and immortalizes himself as a dramatic legend! Thrill!”

We all know how it goes. Boy meets demon, boy gets tempted by demon, boy burns in fiery pit. Or does he? There’s some disagreement…

Cordially invited to seedy 80s nightclub, Le Cabaret de l’Enfer, for a behind-the-scenes peek at the forbidden pleasures awaiting unsuspecting audiences in a mere matter a weeks, it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon somewhere on Highfield Campus, and I’m spending it in a dress rehearsal for Theatre Group’s October Play, ‘Mephistopheles’.

The play, penned over a year by MA English student Alexis Forss – whose previous writing credits include ‘Swann & Company’ and ‘Whitechapel’ – is influenced largely by the Renaissance drama ‘Doctor Faustus’ in which the aforementioned strikes a deal with the Devil, selling him his eternal soul.

Directed by Claire Gilbert, the 9-strong, scantily-clad cast are sitting around on desks wearing fishnets, dog-collars and very little else when I walk in. Spirits are high and in amidst a slight air of controlled chaos, the actors are enthusiastic and confident.

“Where’s the ball-gag?!”

Somebody shouts. Eating biscuits and sipping from bottles of water, they’re about to start another run-through of the Prologue, in which Mephistopheles relates to his coterie of fawning servants the extent of his evil, the result of which is a rough composite of Pol Pot, Colonel Gaddafi and George Osborne.

Cheery stuff. But as Alexis clarifies, this isn’t just another rendition of a classic:

“It’s a riff on the Marlowe, inspired by the Goethe and set in a modern day university.”

In the script, Mephistopheles and The Seven Deadly Sins enact the fall of Doctor Faustus, Southampton medical student. Unfolding like a volatile, 72 hour bender with Max Mosely and the Manson Family, the plot promises to be electrifying.

It’s a play fuelled by cans of coke and menthol cigarettes.

“They taste like shit.”

Says Cameron Bevan, who plays the typically truculent character of Wrath, a bouncer at Le Cabaret de L’Enfer.

Tall and overbearing, he stands inside the doorway at the play’s opening, leather-clad and intimidating, puffing like a chimney, admitting some audience members with little more than a cursory glare, threatening to head-butt others.

As garbled yelps of ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam and The Ants blare across the speakers, Sloth lies prostrate and unconscrious along the carpet, breathing deeply in a tight-fitting bodice. Gluttony munches Mars Bars. Mephistopheles is gathering his ensemble.

The spotlight of the play is indeed shifted a great deal from the source material. The title after all should be some clue here. This is a drama about one man: a towering, menacing colossus of malefice in a black suit and the focal point of our undying attention for 2 hours plus interval.

“Describe it in 3 words? Sex, drugs and violence… A lot of violence.”

Raees Mahmood plays Envy, human-punching bag to Mephistopheles and his sadism for a good chunk of the play. Needless to say, Mr Nice Guy, Mephistopheles is not. Speaking about his character, Sam Jenkins-Shaw tells the Wessex Scene:

“The play turns from high farce one minute to deadly seriousness the next. Superficially Mephistopheles is a showman, very funny, but underneath all the melodrama he’s pretty complex.”

Complex doesn’t come close. I watch Sam for nearly 40 minutes as he repeatedly takes on one of the play’s more audience-challenging monologues, in which a drug trip turns sour, with horrific hallucinogenic outcomes.

“We want to make them think.”

Claire tells me, referring to the script’s postmodern tendency to waver between fantasy and reality, Mephistopheles’s twisted visions morphing through accents and personas, skirting the fringes of his own sanity.

Under the watchful eye of its director, ‘Mephistopheles’ moves at pace and with little warning, its vivid, Technicolor dreamscapes quickly descending into hellish nightmares, a  looming Chekhov gun, threatening to go off at any moment.

Leave your little siblings and illegitimate children at home, this performance is for adults only.

‘Mephistopheles’ premieres at the Annex Theatre on 26 October for 4 nights.

For tickets visit http://boxoffice.susu.org/view.php?id=282.

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