Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s original tale of man who sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power, is widely considered a theatrical classic. However, these days Faustus‘ middle section proves to be a problem for modern theatre makers. Full of references and muddled plots that were meant to entertain the original audiences, the section hardly makes sense today. The Duke of York’s Theatre’s production took on the challenge of modernising Doctor Faustus — by entirely removing the middle section and rewriting it into sordid tale of egomania and the danger of fame.
Kit Harington is the big name draw as the title character, appearing on the stage slobbibly dressed in a grey hoodie, drooling over his TV and laptop, a millennial figure we’re meant to recognise. Instead of Faustus’ office the stage is a sterile flat, and although it’s littered with religious imagery harkening back to the original character’s religious devotion, all the glowing neon crosses look completely out of place in this modern setting. As do the naked and half dressed demons, already crowding in on Faustus’s home. The beginning section is all in Marlowe’s original verse, and is bought to life admirably by Harington and Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles, the demon that seduces Faustus into his pact with the devil – who enters clad only in dirty boxers, spitting profanities, of course.
After the deed is done, the play nosedives into writer Teevan’s new section, abruptly changing to twentieth first century language. Faustus is no longer a loser in an empty flat, he’s a world famous magician playing arenas all over the world to an adoring public, and the play spirals into heaving hectic scenes depicting his hedonistic lifestyle. A female Wagner offers salvation in the form of her love, but Faustus ultimately chooses fame and power, descending further into madness when he starts to realise the superficiality of his celebrity. An abundance of canned laughter and applause follow Faustus wherever he goes, and the entire thing starts to unravel into chaos, within the plot, and on stage. Harington is stripped to his boxers and soaked in blood whilst the other actors smear themselves in fake faeces and vomit and whatever else bodily fluids they can recreate. The pace is relentless and the writing starts to bleed into an incoherent mess, lines and genuinely funny, powerful or horrific moments quickly steamrollered over by the next one.
It was difficult to tell at times if director Jamie Lloyd was purposefully playing on the themes – the dangers of shallowness and materialism – in this lavish, image-centric, aesthetic-driven production, or trying to neatly sidestep them himself. Kit Harington must be commended for throwing himself into the role with an energy that was truly astounding when you think he had to do 9 shows a week. He was good at giving us a sense of what a true loser Faustus is, and there was a nice wink to the audience when Harington stood on the edge of the stage to declare, ‘look at them all. They love me!’ as of course most people were there to support the Game of Thrones star. Ultimately, he did the best with what he was given, and his performance shone when he was given the space and time to dwell on Faustus’ damnation, rather than career around the stage in his boxers.
Casting stars in productions is not new. Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet starring Richard Madden (until he was forced to pull out due to injury) and Lily James showed in the theatre just next door to Faustus. Both productions have been accused of sacrificing coherence for their efforts to draw in new theatre goers. And whilst that should be commended, as Faustus proves, sometimes a big name will not solve all your problems.
Images courtesy of Marc Brenner