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FringeReview UK 2016

Doctor Faustus

Ambassador Theatre Group, The Jamie Lloyd Company

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Duke of York's Theatre, London


Low Down

Jamie Lloyd directs and Colin Teevan rewrites the flawed middle of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with design by Soutra Gilmour. Bangs, flashes, violence and nudity.


Marlowe’s best-known though not best-constructed play is given a new treatment by Colin Teevan, rewriting the central sections in this Duke of York’s Theatre’ production directed by Jamie Lloyd. Soutra Gilmour’s design slides in, bang, shoots off again with just the right whiff of debased magic.


There’s been a spate of Marlowe revivals though ne so bold as to take ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’ as it’s been called of Marlowe’s famously broken-backed creation and decide to cut out the muddle. Unfortunately, Teevan can’t disguise the fact that first-rate Teevan needs more second-rate Marlowe to succeed in Marlowe’s own play. Instead he guts it as savagely as one of Mephistopheles’ nastier tricks.


The opening and close still resonate powerfully as they do in most productions, and Kit-off Harington as he’s inevitably known after this performance shows what a fine Marlovian egotist he can be, portraying all the solipsism and self-delight in his husky, hasty and page-tearing of divinity at the opening, and his ghastly act at the end, another addition by Teevan to remove our sympathies or to bolster his own wavering faith in the denouement as written by Marlowe.


Since the problem for Lloyd and Teevan is that they don’t believe in the play enough: that damnation warning ‘forward wits/for trying more than heavenly power permits’ as the conclusion still has it, deeply trammelled the dramatist, whose own ambivalence and sympathy for such forward wits is well-documented. Indeed he was arrested for proclaiming such things before his sudden mysterious death.


Harington’s set by Gilmour however doesn’t help at this point: he’s not surrounded by books but a few computer screens, and in one sense he hardly portrays a care-worn professor, but most of all not a serious scholar, more a bored dilettante. Harington’s impetuous youth too hardly suggests even a graduate student still less one who could command pupils. There’s a pacey direction from Lloyd who wishes to speed-read this scholarly carapace from tortoise to hare, and this zippy Faust certainly suggests Marlowe’s character and his language of wild speculation.


The muddle is now a slide through Magical Mr Mephistopheles becoming Magical Mr Faust, a supreme magic showman who at one points has Abe Lincoln apparate to the delighted Obama yet in the end seems to dispatch half the American CIA and with fragments of Marlowe Tamburlaine-like have them hurled off mountain-tops for arresting him. In an adjoining toilet used by Mephistopheles Lucifer’s rectum noisily defecates caviar back truffles for the unheeding delight of guests and coprophilic rituals smear their way to hell with a range of sold-on banker scams – familiar stuff but again a bright spot appears when Mephistopheles assures Faust he won’t be eating out of the devil’s rectum: he’ll beg to. This has potential and indeed lights one possible way through the muddle, but there’s not enough Marlovian darkness, just the emptiness of a burnt-out star at the end, a familiar trope. Ben and ma Ringham at least blast us into enjoying the spectacle, and Russell coming on to sing us some devil’s best tunes is a dark treat.


Happily a feminine Mephistopheles, Jenna Russell manages to being not only dark sobriety into the play – ‘this is hell, nor am I out of it’ truly rings in her quiet fierceness and with it her regret – but also a gendered jealousy of Wagner, the other clever sex-change of the production played with appeal and dignity, as well as tenderness by Jade Anouka. ‘Grace’ Wagner, student of Faust also truly loves him. Se counterpoints more than the naked dancing good and bad angels and others, the real tug of love between herself and Mephistopheles who at one point trusses up Wagner and assumes her body to finally seduce Faust, so in a sense both girls enjoy him.


The denouement here, conflating Helen’s apparition with the (again) bound-up Wager and what Faust proceeds to do with her, makes little sense. It seems Teevan wants to find a motive for Marlowe’s damnation but having removed all the final struggle from the last act, with angels and devils alike (they mutedly shimmy up centre), as well as move the famous ship-launch scene of Helen, he’s resorting to a desperate rewrite having lost the temperature of Marlowe’s drama on the way.


Comparisons usually aren’t helpful but they sometimes need to serve as warning for forward, froward or other wits. Tanglehead Productions at the Imaginarium, portraying not only declaring delineation of Texts A and B, but bifurcating young and old Faust and perambulating the audience round their ferocious cries and acrobatics from upper to lower red-lit rooms, was the outstanding Brighton Fringe event of 2012.


It proves Marlowe can be mildly updated poked with physical theatre, treated with all the damnation it deserves, with the audience asked to sign off their names in red, even be hand-stamped in a red smear of soul.


The spirit if not stamped letter of some of this isn’t beyond Lloyd, Gilmour, or textually Treven whose feminizing innovations display an outstanding possibility not fully explored.


Harington proves he’s a more than serious actor, with charisma, timing and brilliance flashing through this muddle. But he’s never given a chance to believe in the play. Russell at least is allowed her dignity, though the end too is curious, perhaps internalised. Anouka’s strong support is abetted by some fine performances from Forbes Masson’s brutal, camp Lucifer, and Brian Gilligan’s Cornelius twirls a wildly funny couple of stand-alones where the voltage threatens to upstage even Harington. Lloyd’s way with what he has is vibrant, yet he can’t probe given what he hasn’t, the play’s genuine mystery and the shivering horrors it can really produce, whatever you believe.