Pippa Bregazzi reviews Doctor Faustus, Globe Theatre, London SE1 (25 September 2011)
It has been suggested that he’d have gone on to be more successful than Shakespeare, had he not got himself stabbed at the age of 29 in a Deptford bar brawl (allegedly). But Marlowe’s words were merely the foundation in The Globe’s most recent revival of the Elizabethan tragedy; a combination of fantastic stage effects, a strong supporting cast, and stellar performances by the leads, Paul Hilton and Arthur Darvill, made this a truly magical production; not one to be missed.
In recent years, it has become common for the character of Mephistopheles to be played by a woman – and, given the play’s central themes of temptation and giving in to our darkest desires, it is easy to see why – so I was intrigued as to how Darvill (Rory from Doctor Who) would play it. The relationship between Mephistopheles and Faustus was spot on: equal parts mentoring, twisted, and touchingly close. Darvill’s Mephistopheles was tortured; collector of souls he may be, but by no means contented with his fate. The blending of resignation and protest lent an enigmatic aspect to his role in Faustus’ sorry tale, and left the audience unsure as to his agenda.
However, this production certainly could not be accused of being a two-man show. The two leads may have had the most stage-time, but the chorus was cleverly used, playing numerous roles ranging from Faustus’s bookcase and personal Latin translator, to each of the Seven Deadly Sins, to drunken villagers. They provided the comedy of ignorant peasants, and the tragedy of souls damned to hell, as well as functioning, like all Elizabethan Fools, as a commentary on the action.
The Globe is a spectacular venue. Open to the heavens, as the play’s themes became darker, so too did the skies above. The atmospheric lighting – both natural and electric – and other stage effects created a spectacle. From subtle bursts of flame to a bawdy, circus-esque atmosphere, the magic of Faustus was delivered by the stagecraft. Similarly, though small, the orchestra was a constant presence, driving the mood of the scenes. On-stage lute-playing, choreography, and singing all successfully combined to keep the audience engaged and the production from becoming static, and the post-bows musical number, despite being incongruous and ridiculous to the extreme, showcased the musical talents of the cast.
No production is perfect, and at times this one did drift towards campness, but on the whole it was a convincing exploration of the human condition and a spectacular production. Marlowe’s play is long and wordy, yet director Matthew Dunster and his cast managed to keep it engaging, no mean feat in an open air theatre with some of the most uncomfortable seats in London. A five star production.
Image credit – Keith Pattison, courtesy of the Globe Theatre