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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Doctor Faustus
Duke of York's Theatre  Spring 2016

The posters say 'Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan', which may seem a bit presumptuous but is in this case accurate. 

Co-author Teevan hasn't just moved Marlowe's drama into a modern setting, but completely replaced a big chunk of the text. The play opens and closes with Marlowe's language, but the middle half is entirely Teevan's. 

The result, while occasionally interesting, is in too many ways a reduction of a great work of literature and theatre into a mediocre one. 

A reminder: medieval scholar Faustus, dissatisfied with earthly learning, sells his soul to the devil for infinite knowledge and power. 

The tragic irony is that his imagination is so impoverished that he only asks for twenty-four years and fritters them away in trivial magic tricks and practical jokes.. The searcher for the unlimited is trapped by his own limits.

Colin Teevan replaces Marlowe's account of Faustus's wasted life with a modern equivalent rather than using his power to end wars or conquer world hunger, Faustus becomes a rock-star-style magician playing Las Vegas.

(A nice ironic touch follows his world tour as it spirals down through Blackpool and Milton Keynes to Bognor Regis.) 

Teevan makes two other significant changes, altering the gender of key characters. 

Marlowe's Wagner, a fellow scholar who repeatedly tries to get Faustus to return to God, becomes a gal-pal (a bit too heavy-handedly named Grace) who quietly loves him and serves the function of Gretchen in Goethe's version of the story, the good woman who might have saved him. 

And Mephistopheles, Faustus's attendant devil, is also female, using her sexuality along with other tools to keep him in line. 

Neither change really adds all that much to the play, but the biggest problem with the new scenes is that Colin Teevan is no Christopher Marlowe, and the rich and evocative poetic language of the opening and closing scenes gives way to the flat and unimaginative prose of the modern co-author, and the energy level of the play drops precipitously. 

There are a couple of strong moments in the new scenes, as when the Pope, unlike in the original, gets the better of Faustus in argument, but there are also easy and cheap jibes at bankers, David Cameron and Marilyn Monroe. 

The popular star needed to make any serious West End drama commercially viable is in this case television's Kit Harrington. 

His voice is thin and he tends to signify externally, with a different hand gesture for every word. But he does commit himself fully to the characterisation, and builds up some sympathy for the man whose easily distracted ego and earthly appetites cripple him as much as his pawned soul. 

Jenna Russell gives a bizarre but clearly carefully thought-out performance as Mephistopheles, sexless one moment and seductive the next, and aggressive, passive, worried, confident and just bored in rapid succession, so you will admire the actress (who also provides an interval recital of songs like Devil Woman and Bat Out Of Hell) more than you understand the character. 

Jade Anouka never really finds a core to Wagner, and everyone else, playing Everyone Else, can do little beyond instant caricatures.

Jamie Lloyd's direction and Soutra Gilmour's designs take the grotesque as their keynote, giving us a lot of weird things to look at, though the gothic filigree around the central action is more often distracting than evocative. 

Everyone in Faustus's life seems to have been drawn from the cast of the Marat/Sade, such figures as his fellow scholars, the good and evil angels, the Seven Deadly Sins and Lucifer himself dressed and played as drooling, gibbering madmen in their dirty underwear or less. 

It is ultimately a tribute to the power of Marlowe's writing (when we are allowed to experience it) and to the dedication of Kit Harrington and Jenna Russell that some of the power of Doctor Faustus comes through.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Doctor Faustus  - Duke of York's Theatre 2016  
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