“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
Shakespeare, The Tempest.
Jamie Lloyd’s modern take on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and 21st century excess is certainly pitching high in terms of ambition, but it oozes “director’s theatre” from every filthy crevice. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) plays the eponymous villain; a man who sells his soul for every pleasure sin has to offer.
The first scene is impenetrable. Christopher Marlowe’s archaic language is delivered with more grandiosity than meaning – a chance for Harington to do some “ACTING”. The ensemble cast creakily drift about the stage (designed by Soutra Gilmour) in ill-fitting once-white underwear, or nothing at all. The nudity isn’t so much gratuitous as inexplicable. With so many foul bodily fluids seeming to leak, ooze and eject from almost every orifice, and a set so squalid that it would cause the How Clean Is Your House? ladies to admit defeat, it’s like watching Dante’s Inferno meets Trainspotting.
Harington is far more magnetic when he transforms into his other persona of a cocksure rockgod, strutting and air-guitaring about the stage, relishing his invincibility, yet all the while being painfully aware of the coven of grimy witnesses who hover ominously throughout. By contrast, slicing through all the sleaze is a beautiful performance by Jade Anouka as Wagner, his demure stage manager (and love interest). Her final scene is uncompromisingly violent – Lloyd has pulled no punches in his direction, and it is thoroughly disturbing to watch.
In spite of the fact that large parts of the show are like wading through treacle, there are some stand out performances, most notably by Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles. She is grotesquely seductive and malevolent, always determined to remind Faustus that he’s made his pact, and should make the most of his immunity from consequence, rather than trying to claw his way back to goodness. She exudes utter vulgarity in her sallow eyes and curl-lipped smiles – the sort that makes you want to go home for a bath. She also treats us late in the interval to some joyfully uninhibited underworld-themed singalongs such as Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, which help to lift the spirits.
But for all the arduousness, there is some light relief, albeit in the form of some very black humour. Tom Edden as the Good Angel presents some savagely accurate cameos (including the Prime Minister), and a deliciously over-the-top gushy fan, for which he seems to be heavily channelling both the nasal singsong voice of the late Rik Mayall, and the flailing campness of Alan Carr. There’s also some wonderfully macabre dancing (choreographed by Polly Bennett), a few magic illusions, and an amusingly incongruous reference to a Mary Berry cookbook.
Given that the West End is awash with stalwart shows, jukebox musicals, and celebrity castings, it would seem that producers have sold their souls to the mass market and guaranteed bums on seats. Doctor Faustus certainly isn’t ashamed to stand out from the crowd, and there is perhaps an irony in the casting of Harington, in order to pull in the punters for a night of taking a painfully hard look at society and our obsession with fame and fortune.
At it’s heart, it’s shock-theatre – more endured than enjoyed. But if all you really want to see is Kit Harington poncing about in his pants, then providing you don’t mind sitting through 2 hours of Lloyd’s self-indulgent bewilderment, your lust will be more than satisfied.
Thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!
Doctor Faustus is on until Saturday 25th June 2016 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. Contains strong language, nudity, and scenes of sexual violence that some may find distressing. Suitable for ages 17+ (minimum advised age is 14). For tickets and more information, please go to http://thejamielloydcompany.com/our-shows/doctor-faustus