Dancing with the devil at Stratford Circus

Simon Rivers plays Lucifer's agent Mephistopheles

Babou Ceesay stars as Dr Faustus

First published in Theatre by

Does your soul have a price? Maybe you could be tempted by the allure of wealth, power, or success? For actor Simon Rivers it is a question he has had to consider recently as he prepares to star in a new version of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play Dr Faustus at Stratford Circus, which opened this week.

“Well, I am quite ambitious,” the 30-year-old offers after some pushing, “so, maybe fame, but I have friends who have become famous and I know the downside.”

Of course, in Marlowe’s moral tale, the downside of Dr Faustus’ pact with the devil for ultimate knowledge is a life spent damned to hell.

“Heaven is cherished, loved and feeling welcome, and hell is any place where that’s not there,” Simon suggests. “It’s more a concept than a physicality, a state of mind and that has given me a grounding where to go from in the play.”

Simon plays Lucifer’s agent, the fallen angel Mephistopheles, who must seal the deal with Dr Faustus (Babou Ceesay) and then act as his servant. A complicated, multi-layered character, the Stratford-based actor’s research took him first to the bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and then to more contemporary sources.

“I had this image of an American prisoner with tattoos all over his body. Dressed in a nice suit he can cover them up, but they are still slightly sinister and dangerous,” he says, before adding: “I actually like Mephistopheles as a character. He is lonely and finds a comrade in Faustus, but is he really a friend or just playing the game?”

Produced by north London-based theatre group Present Moment, this production is set in a “slightly gothic, post-apocalyptic” modern metropolis against the backdrop of an ominous industrial landscape.

Speaking about director Joss Bennathan’s decision to interpret the play in a contemporary setting, Simon tells me: “I think he is trying to bring a classic play to a new audience. Hopefully it will allow people to watch and understand it of this time but still grasp it as a classic play.”

A highly-stylised, physical, choreographed performance, the work features an all-male cast of 17, including ten young actors drafted from the local boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets, who use their bodies to create each scene as Faustus continues his journey.

“There are so many different backgrounds and ethnicities,” Simon says of the cast, “but everyone has got this mentality that we are in it together. There is this real rapport and blitz spirit because it is quite an intense play.”

Born in Birmingham, Simon dreamed of being a film star, watching Rocky and Star Wars religiously, and after a few “wilderness years” working as an extra following college enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Graduating two years ago, Simon hasn’t looked back with steady jobs rolling in, including a starring role in the hit BBC Wales hospital drama Crash – much to his parents’ approval.

“I’m Asian and my parents always wanted me to be a doctor,” he jokes. “They were satisfied that if I’m not going to be a real one, I can pretend to be one.”

Indeed, it is the act of pretending that attracted Simon to the profession.

“I love the cathartic aspect of acting, taking on somebody else’s personality, not having to be me, even for two hours in the evening.”

That said, playing the devil’s bargainer can’t be all fun and games.

“It’s my first time doing a classical play professionally,” he tells me, “and I have really enjoyed getting my teeth into such a meaty text. It’s challenging, frustrating and draining, but ultimately rewarding.”

Dr Faustus runs at Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, Stratford until Saturday, February 6. Tickets: 0844 357 2625, www.stratford-circus.com (£12/£10)

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