Having avoided jumping into the initial rush of theatre goers fighting to see one of TV’s men of the moment, I had some time to set aside the negative feedback from press night and arrive with an open mind, free from the influence of others. I'm extremely glad I did as I feel much of what has been said about Jamie Lloyd’s production is a combination of wanting to cut down the presence of a huge star name, and a lack of willingness to think progressively. There were one or two things about the performance that grated on me, but as a piece of theatre Dr Faustus is creative, fresh and moist!
Subtle suggestions draw you into the depths of hell before entering the auditorium. The white bulbs in the theatre’s chandeliers have been replaced with red, and the lyrically relevant rock music playing throughout the theatre sets a modern, tongue in cheek tone which remains in place for the afternoon. The soundtrack/scape of the production is a prominent feature, used to set the tone, reinforce the contemporary feel, and add moments of humour. The repeated use of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” to accentuate the growing feelings between Faustus and Wagner (cast here as a female PA/love interest) is amusing; but later, when the song is slowed down and distorted to punctuate a much darker moment, the impact is all the more horrifying. Coincidentally, all mobile phone/ data reception blacks out the instant you step off St Martins Lane through the Main Street entrance. Talk about crossing the River Styx!
Soutra Gilmour’s set successfully conveys the modern concept; to begin with we find ourselves in Faustus’ ‘study’, (in this instance, a studio flat) a claustrophobic, dingy space with room for bed, sofa, table and way upstage, a dark kitchen. The dirty, oppressive environment has a similar feel to other collaborations between Lloyd and Gilmour; and in the case of this production, reminded me of Renton’s flat in “Trainspotting”. As the play went on this similarity became more and more pronounced; the tinged underwear of the ensemble, vulgar uses of the bathroom and variety of fluids spewed out by the cast at various moments all add to the unpleasantness of Faustus’ home. Lloyd’s choice of cultural references, coupled with the use of the upstage kitchen window, almost make it feel as though we are on the outside looking in just as much as the ensemble are. It is as though we see ourselves watching these events unfold. Whilst Faustus reads ‘Hello’ magazine and a Mary Berry cookbook to unravel the secrets of magic; seeking advice from his apple laptop as opposed to academic reference books, we wonder if this mirror image means we are as weak as Faustus? Is he as “every man” as most of mankind? I was momentarily reminded of Rufus Norris’ 2015 production of the medieval morality play “Everyman”, in that both centre around a 21st century perception of man and somehow make their desires and flaws universally accessible.
The idea of Faustus as a relatable everyman is supported by Mephistopheles’ (brilliantly encompassed in Jenna Russell’s androgynous, passive aggressive fallen angel) reference to his flat as ‘hell’…where ironically, Faustus has been dwelling all along. Before the play begins, we join him as he sits drooling in front of the television; a lack of activity we are all guilty of, though perhaps not with that much drool, longing for a life which we refuse to strive to achieve. This man is lazy, which is important to acknowledge since once we absorb the naked reference to Adam and Eve, Faustus is taken on a journey through the seven deadly sins. Tom Edden as the Good Angel embodied each sin with startling physicality, fighting his way through a drug induced splitting of personalities which was exhausting to watch. As the action progressed, the power of Lucifer was placed alongside Faustus’ passion for magic; ensemble members sticking to the walls Exorcist style, together with flying chairs, levitation and producing flowers out of thin air. The decision to cloak Dr Faustus in the guise of a budding magician, to link with the notion of dancing with the devil; worked well with the contemporary concept of the production, even down to the suggestion that David Copperfield was the childhood figure who inspired the central character’s love of magic.
Classical dramatic vocal tone was used in the opening moments of the play which, despite being something I tend to find irritating in this day and age, I soon realised was being applied as a device to bookend the modern adaptation of the central section of the text. The binding of the contract and Faustus’ final moments make use of the classical structure of the text, though at times the blank verse, although faithful to the original, felt somewhat weighty. However, when juxtaposed with the modern dialogue used for the majority of the play, the fusion of classical and contemporary again provides the opportunity to present the narrative in an accessible fashion. The middle section is full of humour which, perhaps for purists who are seeking a traditional tragic drama probing at the myriad of moral questions raised in the play, seemed inappropriate. Based on the audience’s response however, the injection of comedy was for the majority a successful decision. From the Eurovision style dance piece, which began with Mephistopheles’ wildly entertaining montage of familiar songs and current affairs, to Faustus’ use of air guitar to amplify his arrogance, the cultural nods add a sense of the familiar and somehow gives the audience some common ground.
Inevitably this production cannot be discussed without defence to its leading man, Kit Harington. It was a genuine fear that the deeply sincere and gut wrenchingly genuine character for which Harington is best known, would bleed into his performance as Faustus, and such a relief to discover this was not the case. From his lazy, pessimistic demeanour at the start to the arrogant, self-loving rock star magician he becomes, the interpretation is a far cry from Castle Black. The 29 year old proves himself to be an actor with range, who manages the text well and develops a strong rapport with the audience. Harington’s public image is cleverly paralleled with Faustus the magician in the production. The celebrity T-shirts adorned with his face and worn in the piece by the ensemble, could have been sold as production merchandise, such was the element of life imitating art. Thanks to Harington’s performance however, this idea contains just the right amount of tongue in cheek to amuse. One could even manage a smirk at the moment when Faustus declares he ‘knows nothing’!
The piece closes with Faustus rotating centre stage, in an empty hug; a physical gesture prominent in the choral movement of the ensemble throughout the performance. Each time I noticed it, I was forced to consider what it meant. Did it represent a desperation for love and acceptance? Or a reaching out for sympathy? In the final moments of Dr Faustus, I became suspicious that this gentle gesture had been used as a clever manipulation…when in fact what it had been all along was death’s grip taking hold.