★★★| Doctor Faustus

Picture Matt Humphrey

The story of Doctor Faustus, the man who sells his soul to the devil, is an enduring one that translates well to the modern age. People can become elevated to giddy heights and accrue endless riches and advantages in the realms of celebrity and politics through seemingly mysterious and nefarious means. It’s still tempting to wonder what kind of pact they might have made whether spiritual or, more realistically who they’ve trampled on and betrayed along the way. The truth is probably less titillating and more prosaic. Doctor Faustus was originally published over 400 years ago but retains its relevance.

The original author Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan enigma; dying in a much speculated upon pub brawl at the age of 29. His writing contained openly queer characters, complex romantic relationships and overtly homoerotic prose. Was he a gay man, a spy or a wily criminal? The speculation has lasted centuries along with his plays.

“Doctor Faustus” opens with a gloomy dwelling with a Hieronymus Bosch style twist of hellishness. Dark figures loiter, hands reach around doors and faces are pressed against the windows. Naked figures move forward, blood flows and sedated looking humans in stained underwear creep around the set. Take your eyes off Kit Harrington (which isn’t easy as he’s incredibly handsome) for more than a few seconds and more horrors appear. Figures appear halfway up the walls, lurch out of doorways and materialise as if from nowhere. It’s actually really quite terrifying. This isn’t a production for the feint hearted. The warning list on the way in is quite impressive with a list of what horrors await you. Instead of the usual ‘theatrical haze’ and ‘strobe lighting’ there’s an itinerary that would make Mary Whitehouse turn in her grave.

Kit Harrington proves that he can really act with an incredibly powerful performance. He’s also almost naked on a few occasions and that’s no bad thing. Jenna Russell (last seen in ‘Grey Gardens’) is on her usual top form as Mephistopheles. There’s also a very able supporting cast, a stunning and cunning set by Soutra Gilmour and appropriately intense sound and lighting design.

All good so far but sadly the good stuff is very good and the bad stuff is very cringe-worthy. The Elizabethan script works as does the modern script by Colin Teevan but the two don’t blend together well. In fact, they positively jar. The modern allusions to celebrities and politicians are a little painfully awkward and the humour often falls flat. The second act starts with Jenna Russell singing “Bat Out of Hell”. It’s a bizarre beginning but definitely a sight worth witnessing. The action then flails somewhat and the atmosphere is shattered with skits that often feel silly, although fortunately the play always manages to pull itself back.

Strongly recommended to see some amazing work from the lead actors (provided you can cope with violence, blood, faeces and sex) but ultimately, Dr Faustus fails to deliver all that it promises.

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

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About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.