May 28, 2016, by Peter Kirwan
Doctor Faustus (The Jamie Lloyd Company) @ The Duke of York’s Theatre
Jamie Lloyd’s West End production of Doctor Faustus, promoted with a cult celebrity star and promises of a deliberately subversive approach to rewriting and updating the play is a Marmite production. No doubt many will hate the mash-up of A-text and new writing that emerge from a joint writing credit (‘By Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan’) and the noisy, bloody, sexually explicit staging. But I loved the breath of fresh air in the West End, where Shakespeare productions in recent years have too often been conservative, po-faced and lazy. The Jamie Lloyd Company tore up Marlowe, but at least they had a purpose.
This purpose might not have been immediately apparent in a production that was frequently crass, puerile and repetitive (especially the endless scenes of devils dancing as part of Faustus’s shows). But this was the production’s point; Faustus is a crass, puerile and limited man. Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles may have promised to give Faustus more than he had wit to ask, but even she was bored to tears by him channelling his energies into a stage conjuring show that invited audiences to read his real magic as simply a series of very good tricks. Faustus longed at one point to join his favourite band but was laughed away; his vengeance against the band’s guitarist (swapping his genitalia with that of his groupie) was a petulant burst of anger, but simply demonstrated the self-imposed limitations that prevented him getting what he actually wanted.
Kit Harington was foregrounded as Faustus, much as the RSC and Passion in Practice productions also kept Faustus onstage for the whole performance. The audience at this weekend matinee was generously populated with Game of Thrones t-shirts, and at least one person screamed when Harington made his entrance – but as his entrance had him appear on the loo, his celebrity was immediately satirised. Celebrity, in fact, was this production’s subject rather than its selling point. When the production switched from Marlowe’s text to Teevan’s, after the Act 3 Chorus which begins Faustus’s travels, Harington appeared ‘backstage’ with his assistant Grace Wagner (Jade Anouka) seemingly in his own person, commenting on the audience flocking to see him but seeming a little dead; the production played with the frisson of metadrama before revealing that Faustus had become the star of his own conjuring show. The idea that celebrity is all that one can aspire to, with its hollowness, loneliness and illusions of power, benefitted from Harington’s presence.
As with the RSC and Passion in Practice productions, Harington had the bulk of the labour of the production, onstage for almost the full running time (and if he got the benefit of an interval, unlike the other Faustuses, they don’t have to do eight performances a week). Sadly this seemed to be taking its toll on his voice, as this Faustus had almost no vocal variety, restricting himself throughout to a plaintive and strained shout. But unlike the other West End productions, Faustus hung on the ensemble rather than a single performance, and Harington’s role in sustaining the energy of his downward spiral for the excellent ensemble to work upon was impressive. I was reminded of nothing so much as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with the self-destructive protagonist whirling while his demons – real and metaphorical – closed in on him.
Soutra Gilmour’s deliberately banal set, a studio flat with bed, sofa and kitchenette, served as the basis for an evocative opening sequence. Faustus sat glued to the television, drooling, while Wagner (with headphones on) did the housework. Harington never exactly cut it as an academic, but both set and action suggested an impoverished mind, wasted and bored. As he began sifting through books, and then turned to the internet for his magic research, devils began encroaching on the space – some naked, others in underwear, half concealed by doorways and dividing walls, all watching. The always-excellent Forbes Masson played ringmaster as Lucifer in y-fronts and vest, his expression changing for pleasure or pain as Faustus veered between sacred and blasphemous texts. The Good and Bad Angel (Tom Edden and Craig Stein) lunged from doorways at either side of the stage, their voices amplified as they implored Faustus to their point of view maniacally. And Valdes and Cornelius (Danielle Flett and Brian Gilligan) emerged fully nude and spoke in monotone as they persuaded Faustus to the dark arts.
The juxtaposition of domestic setting and choric demons left suitably ambiguous whether or not this was all happening in Faustus’s head; certainly his near-catatonia at the start and the invisibility of the demons to Wagner allowed for such a reading. But even though Faustus never left the stage (the clowning subplot, as in all the recent Faustuses, was cut), the narrative of the spirits was fully fleshed out. Notably, the chorus of demons railed against the Good Angel, who was forced out of the room and locked out when Faustus signed the contract, but sneaked back in through a window when he saw an opening to implore Faustus to repent. He and the Evil Angel struggled physically, but when Lucifer entered to renew Faustus’s contract, the Good Angel was overcome. Lucifer injected some of his own blood in the Good Angel’s eyeball (urgh) and Edden proceeded to perform the whole of the Seven Deadly Sins, contorting body and voice in a marvellous bravura performance, oscillating between the screaming anger of Wrath and the painfully slow, bored delivery of Sloth.
Russell’s Mephistopheles was a lively, sarcastic and passionate personality, working with the chorus of demons but acting in her own person to capture Faustus’s soul. She engaged with him sexually from an early stage, masturbating him furiously when persuading him not to take a wife and pressing herself against him. This sequence contained one of the production’s horrific mis-steps, as Gabby Wong’s ‘Wife’ was brought in, shaking in fear and with one breast bared. The Wife was placed on the bed and then subjected to a mime of rape and mutilation ending with blood running down her head. The production seemed to aim to show how Mephistopheles exposed Faustus’s treatment of women as abject, but rather colluded by providing graphic representations of shocking violence that did little for the cause.
It was as the production shifted to Teevan’s text, however, that Mephistopheles’s character came into her own. This was not an original adaptation, having previously originally premiered in Leeds in 2013, but still felt timely. In their backstage conversations, Faustus, Mephistopheles and Wagner hammered out questions of value, meaning and love. The more famous and isolated Faustus became, the more he craved his moments of intimacy with Wagner, who preferred the simplicity of one person loving another to the adoration of millions. But Mephistopheles became a mythic figure, revealed to have been active for centuries and to herself have known love as a human (the strong implication, in this revision of the 2013 text, was that Mephistopheles was Adam/Eve, talking of love in a garden and being cast out). Mephistopheles believed that love was the grand illusion, and that humanity’s only true choice was to destroy God’s creation. Mephistopheles accordingly acted to thwart Wagner and Faustus’s love, including jumping into bed with Faustus disguised as Wagner and leaving the servant trussed at the foot of the bed. It made for a more actively disruptive Mephistopheles than usually appears in Faustus, but created a complex and driving conflict between the three central figures.
During the Teevan scenes there was a great deal of political commentary. President Obama was introduced to Abraham Lincoln (in a reworking of the Alexander the Great scene) and serenaded by Lucifer posing as Marilyn Monroe, onto whom the enraptured President pounced before puking black goop (there was a lot of this). David Cameron and assorted business-folk had millions extorted from them for charity by Faustus, but were happy to sell it back to Mephistopheles for the price of the souls that they didn’t have anyway. And Donald Trump was subjected to a phone call from Martin Luther King. Throughout this, Faustus performed magic tricks (including levitating Wagner live on stage and turning a lit match into a flower) and the devils danced endlessly, creating the very hollow spectacle that drove Faustus to despair. But the most fascinating – and surprisingly sympathetic – scene was reserved for Pope Francis (Masson again). The Pope recognised and knew Mephistopheles for what she was, and the script seemed to praise this Pope for the changes he had made in clerical culture. He debated with Faustus, pointing out that Faustus must be a man of faith because believing in the antithesis necessitates acknowledging the thesis. The Pope’s calm, knowing presence acted as the most potent condemnation of Faustus’s self-delusion, and lent the production welcome depth.
The production’s serious intent was balanced by some excellent comedy. Mephistopheles kicked off the second half with a karaoke act, working her way through ‘Devil Woman’, ‘Better the Devil You Know’ and ‘Bat Out of Hell’ while serenading a poor punter in the sixth row. Faustus was seen sitting with his back to the audience at the start of the second act, but then Harington emerged himself in the audience and revealed the imposter as an uncannily made-up Gilligan (who also, not coincidentally, is Harington’s understudy as Faustus). And as time passed, Faustus’s decline initiated a brilliant catalogue of increasingly unimpressive venues, culminating in the all-you-can-eat buffet in Rhyl, which spoke volumes to his degradation. Edden gave another superlative tour-de-force monologue here, turning the Duchess of Vanholt into a screeching, pregnant fan whose barbed compliments tore at the vulnerabilities in Faustus’s façade, and who was rewarded with Lucifer’s shit to eat.
But as Faustus returned to his study and to the A-text, the production reserved its nastiest tricks for the end. Wagner took on the old man role, finding Faustus putting a gun in his mouth, and she persuaded him from suicide. But when Faustus demanded Helen of Troy for his paramour, it was the gagged Wagner who Mephistopheles produced. Faustus beat Wagner and threw her aside, then stabbed her and proceeded to rape her as she bled to death. While, again, it is possible to see purpose here – Faustus destroying through his impulsiveness and limited imagination the one true connection he has – the violence was sickening and came out of nowhere, unearned by what had come before; in this moment the production jettisoned its careful development of the perverted love triangle through violent melodrama. The production pulled away from this for a quieter and more affecting end, in which Faustus embraced Mephistopheles, who then disentangled herself. Faustus was left turning in a circle, embracing empty air as the lights faded, presumably for all eternity.