Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Thursday 26th May, 2016
While Robb Stark appears as Romeo in Kenneth Branagh’s production just around the corner, here we get Jon Snow in a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.
I’m referring of course to Kit Harington in the title role, a big name draw to Jamie Lloyd’s reimagining of the tale of the dissatisfied scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of fame and glory. Harington (as a Game of Thrones fan boy, I am genuinely thrilled to see him!) begins in grey hoodie and spectacles – his Faustus is more of a mature student at the Open University, than a cap-and-gowned Don. In his grotty flat – think retro motel room – he summons demons. They don’t have far to come: they watch from all corners of the set, attracted by Faustus’s blasphemous utterances. The mighty Forbes Masson comes forth as Lucifer, a bald man in grubby vest and pants. Hell, it emerges, is where you spend eternity in the same underwear. Menacing and darkly amusing, Masson is as scary as he can be for someone who has forgotten his PE kit. Compellingly charismatic is Jenna Russell (she who can do no wrong) as Mephistopheles – her karaoke opening to the second act is wickedly funny. She has a deadpan unpredictability that is this production’s real treat.
You’ve gleaned by now Lloyd does not take a traditional approach. The adaptation by Colin Teevan interpolates new scenes that serve to make Faustus’s glory years more accessible to today’s audience: he becomes a celebrity magician, a kind of Derren Copperfield, of rock-star proportions, entertaining world leaders and getting his face on T-shirts. Harington is certainly charismatic in this context – his Bill & Ted air guitar riffs only become a little annoying, and the way he declaims his lines suits Faustus’s personality from the off: Faustus is a pompous man whose arrogance brings about his downfall. The set (by Soutra Gilmour) comes apart, and is revealed to be part of his show. Canned laughter underscores the dialogue – reminding us that everything is illusion, especially what is promised by the devil…
Off come the hoodie, jeans and singlet. On go the blood, sweat and tears. Harington flails around, almost Christ-like, as his time runs out. His relationship with Wagner (Jade Anouka) makes you hope he can be saved, even though you know he can’t, and makes you hope we can find our own salvation in the love of someone else.
It’s an extremely busy show, teeming with ideas that collide and rebound. Most of them hit their mark. There is sheer brilliance when Tom Edden’s Good Angel embodies all seven of the deadly sins in turn. Evil Angel Craig Stein, in lingerie, struts and pouts in a provocative manner.
The ensemble of demons in their pants create nightmarish tableaux, like Bosch in a bedsit. There are visual gags, even an actual ball gag, and aural gags, and scenes to make you gag. But while we wish no harm would come to Harington and his marvellous physique, what is the show getting at?
The set closes in, returning to its original configuration and we are back where we started, except a girl lies raped and murdered, and Faustus revolves on the spot, as though dancing with an invisible demon, forever in a K-hole. Perhaps the whole thing, the whole 24 years of fame and glory have been nothing but an illusion, and Faustus in a drug-fuelled session has let his rock-star excesses get out of control, bringing about his own damnation. His longing to feel something, to experience rather than study something, is what leads him astray… That Faustus is inspired to conjure demons by something he reads on the internet may be significant…
There’s never a dull moment. Lloyd pricks and titillates our imagination. Shocks are quick and fleeting – there’s always another one along in a minute. This Doctor Faustus is an enjoyable if at times baffling experience, intense and also frivolous, with plenty of dark and nasty fun, played out by an excellent ensemble. Ultimately, though, it’s like listening to someone tell you about their dreams: you wonder what it’s got to do with you.