Sunday 8 May 2016

Doctor Faustus

Duke of York’s, London
5th May, 2016, matinee

‘This production contains: strong language, graphic violence, nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, sexual violence, strobe lighting, loud music and bangs’. Thus read the caution notices for Jamie Lloyd’s production of Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan’s Doctor Faustus. We are thoroughly warned, this Faustus is sordid, distasteful… and rather confusing. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that we’ve become so desensitised to gore and violence that we’re never truly shocked anymore. So when faced with characters vomiting blood and eating shit the main thought running through my head was ‘how did he hold that in his mouth for so long? I wonder what it tastes of…’

No stranger to a bit of blood and guts, Game of Thrones star Kit Harington plays against his good guy image as the debauched and egotistical Faustus. On stage as the audience enter the auditorium, he slumps, stupefied, a continuous thread of drool issuing from his mouth while clips of the The Jeremy Kyle Show crackle before him on a portable television set. I wouldn’t know where to begin in analysing Lloyd’s intent with this opening tableau, just one of many oddities to muse over.

Rather than conscientiously tweaking Marlowe’s play, Teevan takes a disjointed and less than subtle approach to his modern adaptation. We begin and end with the familiar verse, which are the most successful parts of the production – Tom Edden’s performance as the seven deadly sins is a highlight and I enjoyed the eerie simplicity of the final scene compared with the preceding chaos. Yet plonked between these sections, Teevan’s contemporary additions are quite jarring. Marlowe’s verse is discarded in favour of expletive riddled banalities – perhaps an attempt to be cool and subversive?

Teevan’s filling in the Marlowe sandwich sees Faustus, with his newly acquired powers – or should that be Mephistopheles’ powers – exploit the full rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that accompanies his ascent to superstardom as a David Copperfield-esque magician. Played as a pastiche of cheesy American sitcoms (complete with scattergun sound effects and imposed audience reactions), this black comedy is tonally at odds with the creepy dinginess of the opening scenes.

The magic tricks are simple but effective – producing a rose in a burst of flame; a levitation act – and are a nice modern interpretation of Faustus squandering his skills on a quest for hollow fame and infantile practical jokes (an inflatable penis features – I’ll say no more). It is this sense of waste which perhaps leads to a lack of plot progression and slight confusion in the middle stages, although it’s worth noting that Marlowe’s text suffers similarly and Lloyd at least injects some pizzazz (in a WTF?! way) into these sections.

Still, there remains much to be admired in this production. Lloyd has assembled a fine cast, led by Harington, proving himself with a tirelessly intense performance. The ever watchable Jenna Russell is magnetic as Mephistopheles and the psycho-sexual nature of their bond gives an extra dimension to their relationship. It may seem achingly obvious, but Russell’s medley of hellish pop hits (Kylie, Cliff and Meatloaf – go on, have a guess) is wicked fun and very tongue-in-cheek, bringing much needed light relief from the more gruesome proceedings. Jade Anouka also impresses as the love-struck Wagner. A ray of sunshine and hope amidst the many unsavoury characters, Anouka’s reappearance as Helen makes the Trojan’s brutal fate all the more upsetting – one of the truly shocking episodes, I found it uncomfortable to watch.

If the tonal confusion, plotlessness and general mayhem have a disorientating effect, this is cleverly reflected in Soutra Gilmour’s design. The foundations of Faustus’ room deconstruct and reassemble in differing configurations, progressively shifting and providing freshly skewed perspectives upon its grotty origins before we return to that place for the final countdown. My mind was trying to keep up with what went where and which wall was which, and all this built upon a great sense of theatricality as the caverns and rafters of the backstage space are laid bare. This sense of disorientation pretty much sums up my feelings about this production – a sensation of dizziness, of being not really sure what to think or where anything definitively slots together – a sort of nightmarish cheese dream.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed Doctor Faustus; in terms of energy and creating a convincing aesthetic of pure grubbiness – which from a technical level is very entertaining - it can’t be faulted and is definitely worth seeing for those curious. I’m just not sure how well Teevan’s script and Lloyd’s creative choices hold up to analytical scrutiny. After the brilliant Assassins last year, I have faith that Lloyd’s reputation is based on solid foundations, but he perhaps has a tendency to court controversy where none is needed. So we currently find ourselves at a stalemate – your move, Mr Lloyd.

Doctor Faustus plays at the Duke of York’s theatre until 25th June.

 Credit: Marc Brenner

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