Review: Dr Faustus, Duke of York Theatre

Dr Faustus is something of a legendary and problematic play. On the one hand it contains some of the most profound and beautiful poetry ever penned in the English language, poetry which inspired Shakespeare, Milton and even James Joyce. On the other, there are many aspects which of the play which have dated in a way Shakespeare’s works never seem to.

Dr Faustus doesn’t come around very often, rather like the contemporaneous Volpone by Ben Jonson, and so when it does, you have to seize the moment. Some of the speeches and quotes in Dr Faustus are my favourite of all time and I yearned to see a live version having read and studied it a few years back. That one of my favourite actors was also starring was just icing on the cake.

I’m a fan of Kit Harington – his stoic, tragic performance as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones is riveting and genuinely heroic. While Hollywood continues to bombard us with square-jawed uninteresting muscle-bound jarheads, Kit portrays a very different hero: pretty but in a rugged way that has come to be associated with the North, honourable but not talkative, grim and ill-humoured, and most importantly full of mystic charisma. I was surprised to hear he had been cast as the lead in Dr Faustus at the Duke of York theatre in London. Dr Faustus is quite possibly the furthest from Jon Snow it is possible to be: garrulous, pretentious, academic, completely unfocused in some respects whilst driven in others. But within thirty seconds I realised that Kit was the perfect choice. His performance was possibly one of the finest I have ever seen. Mesmeric, engrossing, completely compelling and convincing. He inhabited the slowly despairing Dr Faustus with maddening intensity. His understanding of the cadences of Marlowe’s lyric, as well as his sheer presence on stage, made it a true powerhouse performance.

But Dr Faustus is not one man’s triumph. The rest of the ensemble all deliver absolutely phenomenal performances. Forbes Masson delivers a sinister and hilarious Lucifer, as well as stepping in to deliver a memorable turn as a strange, philosophical priest. Tom Edden performs as all seven of the deadly sins in a row, pushing the language to astonishing levels and rendering it modern. A masterclass in acting. Though I found Jenna Russell’s interpretation of Mephistopheles slightly less sinister and powerful than I might have desired, she none the less captured a brilliant pathos and ensured we believed in the divergent relationship between Faustus and his demonic servant.

The interpretation of the play is radical, dark and most importantly, utterly true to what Marlowe’s text intimates. I can imagine that if Marlowe had ever seen it, he would have finished his bitter and smoke, grinned and tapped his nose and said: ‘They know’. The modern adaptations are particularly refreshing. Normally, when writers feel the need to add their own text to ‘make a piece relevant’ they often dumb down the meaning of the original and spell out its themes. Colin Teevan makes no such mistake. His scenes not only reflect the action of the original (but without the clunkiness of the morality-play language) but actually excavate further meaning from the depths of the text. In one scene he has Mephistopheles remark: ‘Hell is despair’, exactly in keeping with Marlowe’s idea that hell was a state of mind. His humour is black as deep space, which is exactly what a play about damnation needs. What’s more, there are a number of real surprises in the comedic scenes which will bring laughter to your throat but a twist in your gut.

Much of the modern additions is as poetic as the original: ‘Do you know why Lucifer is so sulky? Because he revolted against God, and to revolt against Him, is to acknowledge His existence.’ Colin Teevan and the director clearly understand the play at a cellular level, drawing out the themes of despair, self-deception, illusion and the nature of light and God and darkness and the devil in astonishingly innovative ways.

The original text bookends the modern scenes to brilliant effect. Faustus’s 24 year period of fame is reinvented as a kind of Darren Brown rise to superstardom; the Elizabethan poetry either side of the modern language serves to make the 24 years feel even more dreamlike and ephemeral, as though the modern world is part of hell, or else, doesn’t really exist. Nothing more than illusion. Fleeting. Gone. Like human life. The theme of Faustus’s hollowness and how his magic actually accomplishes nothing is strongly developed, both through key set-piece choices (Satan’s magical book of higher knowledge is just a Hello magazine) and through radical changes (Faustus’s shows are supposed to raise money for charity, but no one cashes the cheque for tax reasons, meaning it is worthless). Even the ‘chocolate trifle’ he secures for a pregnant fan (instead of the grapes in the original text) turns out to be the devil’s faeces.

The strange, twisting music score (Loving You plays in a scene between Wagner and Faustus, only to return later in stripped down and distorted format when Faustus commits a horrifying act) adds another level of labyrinthine complexity to the play. Songs explciitly about hell (AC/DC Highway to Hell plays in the intro) are mixed with other pieces for contrasts which perfectly reflect Faustus’ inner struggle.

Best of all, however is the end. I can’t ruin it for you, but suffice to say, the final speech, the infamous ‘Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven’ is delivered with such rending pathos by Kit that it will make even the most theatre-adverse shake. And the final image, the final descent, is executed in a way that I have never seen before but perfectly encapsulates the meaning of what hell is which is so ferociously debated throughout the play.

It’s not often that the stars align, but sometimes they do. Sometimes a perfect writer, cast, director and play meet, and they produce something. It’s called a masterpiece.

 

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