Doctor Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus is a modern and contemporary version, making Faustus a world famous performing magician à la David Blaine after selling his soul to the devil for 24 years. The middle text of the play by Marlowe has been replaced with two new acts written by Colin Teevan, with the original text being used at the opening and closing of the play.

Faustus’ torment is evident from the beginning of the play. He is alone in a dingy flat, staring open mouthed at the TV. Spirits appear around his flat in dirty white underwear, and throughout the play only Faustus and his love interest Wagner appear in colour, showing that they are the only ‘real’ people. I was unsure about the choice of underwear as costumes at first, but it struck me later that having Faustus end up in his underwear (turned red in the shower) towards the end of the play showed that he was gradually becoming like them. I also feel the press coverage about ‘Kit Harington in his underwear on stage’ has been exaggerated – he isn’t in his underwear for that long, and a lot of the reviews make it sound gratuitous, when actually it was reflecting his gradual breakdown.

It is a fast paced and provocative production, with some comedic moments and great use of music. Jenna Russell singing ‘Better the Devil You Know’, ‘Devil Woman’ and ‘Bat Out of Hell’ at the beginning of the second half was a particular highlight! The original text flowed smoothly into the more modern section, and to be honest I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice immediately that the original text was being used once again at the end.

Although there were many things I enjoyed about the production there were a few things I thought were perhaps unnecessary. There are a lot of bodily fluids, and personally I felt that there was no need for the good and bad angels to keep vomiting, or for Faustus to be drooling when he appeared on stage as the audience were arriving. In a Q&A that was held after a matinee this week and reported on Twitter, someone (I would imagine Lloyd) said that the ‘notion of bodily fluids is a manifestation of the psychological torment he experiences’. Fair enough, but personally I felt the torment was already conveyed well enough without the vomit. I’m still not quite sure what the drool was meant to convey – that Faustus is a bit of a loser? Again I felt this wasn’t necessarily needed.

Another element I wasn’t sure of was during the middle section when we saw Faustus, Mephistopheles and Wagner backstage at one of Faustus’ concerts. I didn’t fully understand why canned laughter kept being used, somehow suggesting we were now in some kind of bad sitcom. Also, I felt there was a little too much of Faustus playing the air guitar. I maybe would have liked some more genuine moments between Faustus and Wagner, although the use of music when they caught each other’s eye was quite funny.

As for the actors themselves, they were all strong. Kit Harington gave a very good performance and has excellent stage presence. I definitely want to see him on stage again. The other stand out performances were Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles, Forbes Mason as Lucifer and Tom Edden as several characters including the good angel and the 7 deadly sins.

Doctor Faustus is a challenging play and if nothing else it is great that Jamie Lloyd has tried to do something different with it. When I was rereading reviews after seeing the play, I noticed that the Time Out reviewer mentioned that he had a vague theory that Faustus never actually leaves his flat, and that everything that happens is some kind of psychological episode. I’m not sure if that was Lloyd’s intention, but I like that theory a lot, and it means that some of the things I was unsure about (like the canned laughter) make a lot more sense. Harington also mentioned in an interview in The Guardian that the production is about ‘a man trapped in his own head’ which again supports that theory.

I have been thinking about the play a lot since seeing it at the weekend, so it was definitely thought provoking! Overall, I felt sometimes there was a little too much going on, but it is an original and lively production that is worth seeing, but don’t expect a traditional version!

 

P.S. As well as being very talented, Kit Harington also proved himself to be a total sweetheart when meeting fans at the stage door. He took his time, chatted, and signed and took photos for as many people as he could. He must have been exhausted after a week of performing, but it didn’t show. What a lovely man!

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