Thanks to the film Shakespeare in Love we think of Christopher Marlowe as more celebrated in his own day than Shakespeare. Now, of course, his work is performed far less frequently, making any production an event, especially when Shakespeare’s own Globe conjures up its first production of Doctor Faustus.
Director Matthew Dunster does his best to make the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil resonate with a contemporary audience. The emphasis is on magic rather than religion – a sound move in our agnostic times – aided admirably with a soundscape from Jules Maxwell.
But Doctor Faustus poses problems. With roots in morality plays, 16th-century concerns and seemingly impossible stage effects, several scenes are potentially odd to modern eyes. Dunster’s solutions are admirable, using wit, imagination and strong doses of broad humour to engage: Georgina Lamb’s choreography is a capable distraction when the Doctor meets the seven deadly sins, the Pope becomes a comic mafia don, and a castle in the air is a simple inflatable balloon that floats off over the South Bank.
Paul Hilton is a model of clarity in the title role. Fingers stained with ink, this scholar-turned-magus’s pride is painfully convincing and, if he lacks the sensual touch that comes to dominate a man “ravished” by desires, his relationship with Arthur Darvill’s commendably understated Mephistopheles is electric.
Dunster injects a huge amount of movement into what is potentially rather a static play, and his tautly controlled ensemble works hard, peopling the world Faustus plays in. Of particular note are Charlotte Broom and Beatriz Romilly as the angels who fight over Faustus’ soul with samurai swords. With flashy touches such as this, Dunster grapples with Marlowe’s mighty play in a magical fashion and does not sell Doctor Faustus short.
Until 2 October 2011
Photo by Keith Pattison
Written 24 June 2011 for The London Magazine