Last month, at the renovated Ottawa Arts Court on Daly Avenue, we watched an Ottawa Fringe Festival performance of a cleverly updated version of Marlowe’s Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, with Mephistopheles played by a tall, tattooed, long-haired young woman. Using an abridged transcription of the play, but the original, 16th century words, the main part was played by local actor (William Beddoe) for much of the performance sitting in a swivelling home-office chair, ranting about the damnation of his soul, but unable to do anything about it. The only other scenery was a screen at the back of the set, on which computer "windows" were projected to fix each scene in a 21st century context.
The fictional professor of Divinity, John Faustus, was almost a contemporary of Marlowe, supposed to live during the ferment of the Reformation period of European history. Brought to life in this new performance, he becomes startlingly modern. His alter-ego (well, that's my reading of the story) Mephistopheles --- whom Faust summons by incantations in Latin (passwords to access a website, in this version: there has to be a whole series incantations, because he keeps getting the password wrong!) --- makes the very emphatic point that hell has nothing to do with an afterlife. "Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it!" is a line that comes early in the play, in answer to a direct question from Faust, re-echoes throughout, and must have come across as heresy to generations of the clergy ever since the first appearance of the play. It rings true enough to a 21st century audience, with silent video clips of recent bombings and lines of present-day refugees (plus the useless or malevolent talking heads we keep seeing on our everyday screens) projected across the backdrop at that moment.
Of course the corollary to "this is Hell..." is that there must be Heaven-on-Earth as well as Hell-on-Earth, and the whole play, however presented, is filled with the longing for that place. Even Mephistopheles helplessly yearns to retrieve what (s)he has lost, once, long ago. The human condition! The condition of immortals, too.
Faustus, legendary magician, is portrayed as an internet junkie in this new interpretation, an unwashed, nerdish type, sealing the contract to sell his soul by clicking on a blood-stained computer screen (aka "scroll" in the original text ... he scrolls down it). Mephistopheles controls his moods through the chemicals in an intravenous drip that stays in his arm from the moment he agrees to the contract. His well-meaning friends or colleagues appear in multiple windows to chastise him, as if participating in a shared Skype call. He can switch them off at will. Lucifer's cruel (human) face fills the screen at one point. Faust choses his “paramour”, Helen of Troy, from an online dating agency, swiping through the possibilities, and enjoys other virtual pleasures through 3D spectacles.
Towards the end, as he proclaims, “Faustus, now hast thou but one bare hour to live…” a projected digital clock ticks inexorably away in fractions of a second and at the catastrophic conclusion of the play he is simply led away for more of the same, "...for all eternity"!
The whole thing was chillingly real. It was not so easy to calm down afterwards.