I’ve been struggling the last few days to try and articulate why Jamie Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus, currently on at the Duke of York’s in London, has made such an impression.
The play’s themes are certainly timely: what makes a man sell his soul to the devil? Is all he gets worth all he loses? Could he not have achieved the devil’s promise without the devil’s bargain? Arguably, few plays raise the most salient ethical and moral questions of today as pointedly and vividly. I’m not sure the robber barons of the digital age are beating themselves up with considerations of conscience in their tropical tax shelters. But they should. The play raises questions we might individually ask of ourselves and collectively want answers to from them. Or at least those are some of the thoughts and feelings this production puts into play for me.
There’s also the beauty of the language itself, with phrasing so memorable we still use it in our every day lives:‘Misery loves company’, ‘Where we are is hell/ And where hell is must we ever be’; etc. But this is not simply a new production of Marlowe’s play; Colin Teevan, whilst keeping the main plot and much of the language, has rewritten the ‘difficult’ middle part and modernised the references – here we get to hear of the Panama papers, we get to see the Prime Minister’s father in hell; and Barack Obama bargaining with the Pope is performed for us as a vaudeville sketch; it’s telling too that in this version the scholar becomes a Vegas Illusionist Rock Star, a modest seeker of truth turned into razzling-dazzling the populace with lies: each of the jokes hit their mark; each laugh earned is a point communicated and accepted as true. It all adds up to a joyfully scathing critique.
This is already a very successful adaptation. It’s been previously staged by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theatre Glasgow – where The Independent called it ‘a thing of beauty to watch.’ I’m sure the casting of Kit Harington in the title role was one of the main reasons a centuries-old play is getting a West-End airing. And both he and it have done an excellent job in this regard; the theatre was sold-out, full of young people; and the play itself still feels as startling, vital and contemporary as anything I’ve seen on stage this season.
This production is a tour-de-force of staging by Jamie Lloyd and it’s useful to compare it to his production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, which is running concurrently at Trafalgar Studios. There, Genet’s tale servitude is played in what looks like an invisible box, with the audience looking on from back and front, and with a powerhouse performance from Uzo Aduba that thrillingly threatens to explode that invisible glass wall that separates the stage from the audience and stab you in the heart. Her performance makes of Genet’s words a weapon. Yet, in spite of that – and it truly is a great production – I felt slightly removed from its drama and its concerns; I understood them, accepted the validity of the critique but it all still felt abstract and removed to me in spite or perhaps because of the maids being cast as black: This adds a dimension of racial servitude to the film’s economic and ideological one but it also brings connotations of slavery and plantations and elsewhere. It’s interesting that Michael Billington’s excellent review in The Guardian brings up the issue of the play connoting the Mistress (Laura Carmichael from TV’s Downton Abbey) as American. I don’t mean to suggest that the play’s concerns are only theirs just that Billington’s aside made me question where my feeling of the plays’ concerns being abstract and other rather than burning questions of the here and now for me — which they should be, as they are in Faustus – comes from.
In contrast, Jamie Lloyd has staged Doctor Faustus as a cabaret that could take place in a suburban housing estate of dashed hopes and truncated desires. Soutra Gilmour’s set design, inspired by the paintings of Gregory Crewdson, is sublime: everything looks like drabness covered by a layer of cooking oil. When the characters appear at the beginning, their nakedness feels dirty, repulsive, alienating. The subsequent carnivalesque ascent to fame and descent to hell will alter this. The stage changes, moves faster, revolves, moves forward, we’re even allowed to see the backstage. All with the energy and verve that accompany the play.
Lloyd manages Kit Harington’s stardom very wittily. He avoids unbalancing the play with unneeded and unwarranted applause by having the star appear, sitting on the bog, as the audience enters the theatre and before the play begins. Indeed all entrances are arranged to prevent the show from becoming a rock concert or the church of Harington-worship; and so successfully that Harington doesn’t even get a standing ovation at the end (and this was actively managed to be so). Yet, the play is also made to seem about Harington himself. As he told Nick Curtis in The Guardian:
‘About 25 pages in we walk into a completely modern play. It really works. My first line is: “They love me, they really fucking love me.”
Game of Thrones must have been great preparation for that.
At first, I thought this [Faustus] was going to be about selling yourself for fame, but actually it is about a man completely trapped in his own head. I’m not sure how much I can say…
Again, thanks to GoT, that’s the story of your life.
It really is…’
Later, as the play unfolds, and temptations are laid on for Faustus, the suburban sordidness turns queer, with Craig Stein as an evil angel in a nightdress with a flamenco fringe, half-muscles, half-flounce, tempting Harington. In an interesting interview with GQ, Harington reveals that, ‘At drama school in my third year I was resigned to the fate of being Young Male Rape Victim No. 2.’And that’s exactly how he seems with Stein on top of him.
Lloyd doesn’t deny the audience its pleasure. If they’ve come to see Harington, he shows them Harington; his body is prominently on display after the intermission and there’s even a buttock-clenching joke thrown in for good measure. But if Harington displays the best torso on the London stage, his performance, albeit, adequate, doesn’t live up to the part. He doesn’t have the vocal power to wring as variegated expression as the text deserves, much less to then theatricalise it verbally to the audience for full effect; and his speaking of the text is sometimes sing-songy. He simply doesn’t have the range. But what he lacks vocally, he more than makes up physically (and fans of Game of Thrones will be interested to know he still sports the hair and beard he’s contractually obligated to grow for Jon Snow).
It’s interesting that the best part of the show is not Harington even though he might be what made the show possible. Each member of the cast gets their turn, I’ve already mentioned Craig Stein as an Evil Angel. But there’s also Forbes Masson as a zaftig devil; Tom Edden is terrific as an El Greco-ish Good Angel who gets to illustrate the seven deadly sins as a tour de force vaudeville turn (If we’d been Americans, we’d have given the moment a standing ovation). And Jenna Russell is a terrific Mephistopheles, taunting the audience during the intermission with performances of pop numbers (Better the Devil You Know, Devil Woman, Bat Out of Hell), milking the applause, being both in character but also slightly out of the play in the best Brechtian manner. But if Harington is not the best part of the show, Doctor Faustus does offer evidence of his taste, ambition and generosity.
It’s a really electric show. I loved the way the director uses the solo bit leading to the high note in Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’ as an indicator of attraction verging on love; it’s characteristic that this play deals with issues of power, fame, TV, the Postmodern condition and the price of inequality with poppy, energetic irreverence. There’s pop music, dance numbers, nudity; all deployed knowingly, irreverently but expressively, to communicate meaning as well as joy. It’s a great show and I was so excited by it that I raced at intermission to buy the program in order to find out who else aside from Harington had made it possible. See it if you can.