December 16, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Doctor Faustus (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Paulette Randall’s first production for the Globe – and, according to her bio, her first production of an early modern play – made an important statement, taking a play that focuses on the archetypal white male overreacher and casting Jocelyn Jee Esien as the titular Doctor Faustus. It’s part of the Globe’s agenda-setting commitment to diversity, and all the more importantly it was unremarkable, simply letting Esien (another artist whose bio notes no previous experience of early modern drama) hold the stage in a bravura performance.
As with yesterday’s Macbeth, the play began weakly. Problems of dynamics and lighting plagued the production; the blocking and stage traffice felt half-finished; and a messy cut of the B-text slashed Wagner’s role, introduced Bruno in captivity without seeing him through to freedom, and bottled the ending. The verse speaking (in the first half particularly) was full of odd hesitations and inflections, and it wasn’t until the second half that it felt like the cast took ownership of the play and drove the final sequences through to a terrifying climax.
Esien’s Faustus (the character regendered to match the actor) appeared onstage amid piles of books, moving from pile to pile. The introduction to the character was gentle and somewhat underwhelming; while she told us of her researches, her tone was matter of fact, her enthusisam for divinity more of a general interest. Esien’s strengths, initially at least, seemed to be less in the set pieces and more in reaction and dialogue with others, where she came to life. Her mockery of the voice of Pauline McLynn’s Mephistopheles was an early indication of her playfulness, and as she started engaging in the pettier tricks of the later acts, Faustus seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
McLynn, dressed in a killer red gown, was brilliant. She played the role subtly, standing unnaturally straight and yet moving her head with a predatory ease as a smile played across her lips. Mephistopheles was never, ever on Faustus’s side, her intentions explicit from the start as she watched Faustus with an unblinking hunger. While Mephistopheles was obedient, this was always in her own interests, as when she wilfully went along with the poking, teasing, and throwing of firecrackers among the Pope and his monks. There was never camaraderie between the two, just Mephistopheles biding her time until time ran out.
The production’s poor lighting, however, affected their respective performances to (I can only assume) unintended effect. As opposed to Robert Hastie’s precise use of lighting in Macbeth, here the lighting rarely varied and the chandeliers were largely kept high. The balconies were exceptionally well lit, but Faustus herself was in almost constant shadow, making it near-impossible to see Esien’s facial expressions. Mephistopheles, conversely, held a light close to her face for most of the production, allowing every side-eye and complicit nod to the audience to be seen. It’s surprising, given the Globe’s commitment to exploring best practice in lighting non-white actors, but I felt that much of Esien’s performance was lost to me.
This was made clear in the second half, when Esien was much better lit; correlation doesn’t equal causation, but her performance became transcendent. Helen of Troy (Lucie Sword) was dressed in white gown and Roman helmet, but stared unseeingly ahead of her, pliant and passive. When brought back in for Faustus’s edification, Faustus stared adoringly into her face, holding a torch close to her own, and the focused light captured a woman in anguish, desperately lonely and desirous, who kissed the unaware Helen full on the lips and clung there as if for dear life. On the second kiss, however, Mephistopheles pulled Helen out of the way and took the kiss for herself, leaving Faustus thrashing to get away, before she ran offstage gagging. And in the concluding scene, the chandeliers finally descended to stage level as she knelt on the floor and sobbed out her heart and soul. It’s perhaps the most raw I’ve ever heard that soliloquy, and at the end of a production whose stakes felt quite low, Esien sold the scale of Faustus’s bargain.
The supernatural elements of the play were presented as a mixture of stage magic (squibs and apparently hand-held flames), baroque costuming and overt theatricality. The Good Angel and Bad Angel, pleasingly, appeared in full white and black angel garb, standing on the balconies and speaking over one another to tempt Faustus, though the habit of playing music over the Angels affected the audibility of Sword’s Evil Angel badly. The Seven Deadly Sins were represented in a superlative choreographed sequence (choreography credited to Paradigmz and Jackie Guy, whose expertise is in African Peoples and Jamaican dance) featuring seven actors dancing, jerking, twirling in complex routines keyed to their qualities. Lucifer (Jay Villiers) and Beelzebub (Lily Bevan), conversely, were nobles in masquerade who threatened and stalked Faustus. Beelzebub remained on stage for much of the concluding movement, Faustus unable to take her eyes off him even as she told the other scholars to wait for her.
Among the supporting performers, I was particularly struck by Sarah Amankwah, whose crystal clear voice, expressive energy and fluid gender presentation in different roles emphasised a protean skill set; one hopes she’ll be back at the Globe regularly. As the Carter she was the strongest of the clowns, dominating the final attack on Faustus in front of the Duke of Vanholt and riling up the others. Bevan’s Horse-Courser was amusing, and the pulling off of Faustus’s leg managed especially well; Bevan excelled in the panicky attempts to explain herself subsequently. The Robin and Rafe scenes were less well developed, played in near-darkness and relying on rubber-bodied pratfalling.
In scenes which might have had a more serious undertone, the production doubled down on comedy. Bruno was introduced in chains, but Faustus and Mephistopheles (and the production) ignored that issue to concentrate on floating the goblets and pieces of food, wihle the monks mugged cartoonishly. The attempted assassination of Faustus had an element of tension to it when Faustus was first mugged, Faustus doing a fine impression of fear before her head was ‘cut off’; Louis Maskell’s strutting Benvolio was never much of a threat, however. The best part here was the excellent movement work of Maskell, Amankwah and John Leader as the three conspirators were thrown bodily about by invisible hands, a rare sequence which showed the darker implications of Faustus’s power.
The production too often felt underbaked and unsure of quite why it was performing particular scenes. Mandi Symonds’s Wagner was a case in point, reduced in speaking role to a Chorus who occasionally appeared onstage lighting cnadles and fetching Faustus in and out, and offering an ‘oh dearie’ level of moral commentary. She was much better as the Old Woman, though muddled stage traffic distracted from her as she hobbled offstage. The ending, following Esien’s excellent soliloquy, was similarly muddled, as Symonds tried to make her closing Chorus heard over a swell of music, while the rest of the cast entered the pit to sing a chant, and Faustus simultaneously wandered off into the tiring house; it’s possibly a lack of experience in the creative team, but aural and visual confusion repeatedly diminished the impact of focal moments. Nonetheless, there was much in the production that was powerful, especially as it finally found the terror of the unknown.