Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'Doctor Faustus' at the Duke of York

Last week I made a trip to see the new production of 'Doctor Faustus' by Christopher Marlowe at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. It stars Kit Harington from 'Game of Thrones' and is obviously meant as a 'star vehicle'. I booked tickets because it's one of my favourite plays and it features Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles, the dark angel and demon that helps Faustus create his own doom. I've avoided seeing photos and reviews because I wanted to see it afresh. It's a Jamie Lloyd Company production but what I didn't notice in any of the blurbs was that it was written by Kit Marlowe and by Colin Teevan. Um, who? And why?

I think I can answer the 'why' question. It's clearly a 'star vehicle' for Kit Harington and 'Faustus' is a good one for a lead man so why not? It was also obvious when the cast came on that none of them are meant to be in his 'league' looks-wise, either because they aren't or because they're all in their underwear for the whole thing. He's the only one fully dressed for most of the play, emphasising the contrast and, when he eventually does strip to his pants it's more to show off than for any dramatic reason. What's more, Kit gets to wear glasses to show that he's a serious academic and can translate Latin on a whim. This was definitely a one-man show pretending to be an ensemble piece.

I'm always in two minds about these 'star vehicle' productions that pop up every so often with a big name from telly or films doing 'real acting' on the stage for us all to gawp at and marvel at. I've seen a few good productions, like those with Kim Cattrall, Jude Law and Gillian Anderson, but I've seen some less good ones (no names mentioned). With this one, I don't really know how to assess Kit Harington since the play was so overlaidened by the production itself and it didn't really let him loose to do acting and prove his credentials (which is presumably why he's in the West End).

The thing I came away with is thinking that the production was really quite ugly and dirty-looking. For someone like Faustus to have his level of education there must be money in the family somewhere (whether 400 years ago or today) and yet he lives in a shabby bedsit. As soon as I saw the set my heart sank. And then an actress came on stage to hoover while the audience sat down, and then Faustus emerges from the toilet and sits on the bed with bile dripping from his mouth for no obvious reason. Bile keeps featuring - in different shades of vomit - throughout the play with different characters. I have a lot of sympathy for the cleaners who have to clean that mess up every night.

The quite important scenes with royalty and with rustics in the play are replaced here with meeting rock stars and presidents and that's ok to a degree - there's no harm in updating a play so long as it's done well. This wasn't. Do rock stars in 2016 still end every sentence with the word 'maaan' and act like zombie druggies or was the writer stuck in some kind of '70s induced drug-fuelled coma? Now, I don't know any rock stars personally, but come on. If you're going to change something, do it for the better. In this case, all Faustus did was change the genitals of the rock star and the groupie and then the groupie chased the rock star round with a hard-on under her slip like an old Benny Hill sketch from the '70s. All that was missing was the chase music Benny always used.

And speaking of music - invisible air guitar '80s power chords. Really?  Every now and then Faustus got his invisible guitar out and was in power chord heaven and that just left me baffled.

But the thing that went beyond the pale is Faustus mouthing the 'Helen' speech (y'know the one, 'Is this the face that launched a thousand ships...'), one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in any play to rival Shakespeare, to a scene of him stabbing and viciously raping his pupil. Ugly doesn't even come close. He chases his student and supposed love around the bedsit and, when he fails to catch her, he stabs her in the back, throws her on the bed and rapes her while mouthing the 'Helen' speech. She dies. You've lost me there Jamie Lloyd. That's just not on.

The only saving grace for the dratted thing was Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles, the devils' ambassador. Even she has to wear an ugly night gown that gets progressively dirtier as the bile and play goes on. It's her job to bring Faustus closer to the gates of hell as the play progresses and this she does most admirably. My favourite bit with Jenna was the half-time interval when she took to the stage to give a mini-concert by singing songs from Kylie, Cliff Richard and Meatloaf on the themes of the devil and hell, obviously. Now that, that was inspired. Well done Jenna, when does the album come out?

I think I've said enough really. I won't be going back for second helpings.

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