Adam Zed went along to the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production of Doctor Faustus to see if all of the scary clown posters were worth the wall space.
Every once in a while, the West Yorkshire Playhouse provides a home for one of the theatrical heavyweights. A few years ago it was ‘Othello’. Since then we’ve had ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’, ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ and, most recently, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. All of these, whether in-house productions or the work of a visiting company, stick in my memory as plays which are, in their own way, extraordinary.
I heard that Doctor Faustus was to be part of their Spring/Summer season several months ago and, since then, have been slightly obsessed with my own anticipation; wondering just how WYP and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow would approach this leviathan text. I can say that I was not disappointed. Though, I was, occasionally, bewildered.
Re-establishing Christopher Marlowe’s seminal play as a contemporary fable of a studious young man caught up in chasing 21st Century mores, I was intrigued by how well the ideas in ‘Doctor Faustus’ worked in a modern piece. Moving from squalor, into glitz and limelight and back to deeper, grottier squalor, the play shows the rise and fall of a man hungry for fame, fortune and boundless knowledge.
Haunted by angels, devils and a lurking band of choral onlookers, we are invited to judge Faustus’ deliberate ignorance as he enters into a pact with Lucifer and his representative on earth, the demon Mephistopheles. The pace is a little jumpy early on and it takes a moment or two to establish exactly where we are and who’s with us.
But there’s enough to admire in Dominic Hill’s production that we’re patient for the imminent inferno of Faustus’ downfall. The two new acts, written by Colin Teevan, are where the production really comes alive. These scenes crackle with tension as Faustus both basks in and despairs of his celebrated status.
The bookending of the Renaissance text either side of Teevan’s writing is not without its problems, though, and the segue between the new and original parts of the script isn’t quite as smooth as it ought to be. There are notable differences in the timbre and rhythm of Teevan’s writing when compared to the poetic sway of Marlowe’s. Some of the contemporary language sticks in the craw slightly and it left me wondering whether these scenes should have been scripted entirely in present day English rather than the resultant, slightly wobbly hybrid.
Doctor Faustus is a story which is chock-full of ideas and philosophies. Its contemplation of an individual’s path to either heaven or hell would have terrified and thrilled a Renaissance audience. Hill and his team have given the updated play a Black Mirror-esque air, with celebrity and excess replacing the heretical, seductive pull of enlightenment thinking at the centre of Marlowe’s original play. It’s something which transfers incredibly well.
Part of my bewilderment (though not necessarily a criticism of the production) was to do with what I’ll refer to as the theological jeopardy of ‘Doctor Faustus’. This version appears to be an entirely godless play. It doesn’t really seem to have a religious argument as its central preoccupation, unlike the earliest productions of the piece. As such, although we’re constantly reminded of the prospect of his hellish comeuppance, it is never quite clear what Faustus’ salvation might be. This sounds like a philosophical problem rather than a criticism in a theatre review but, in real terms, the Doctor’s sealed fate often means that there is a niggling sense of nothing being at stake – which is a problem for a piece of drama.
But there’s an awful lot about the production which hits all of the necessary buttons. The impressive moments of illusion and nostalgic magic are delivered well, adding a glittery and showy quality to proceedings.
Kevin Trainor’s performance as the doomed doctor is excellent. What we see is a little boy who’s been given an unhealthy amount of toys and sweets for Christmas and, somehow at the same time, a grown-up, lustful and mischievous egomaniac. Mephistopheles’ development is rather predictable and I was hoping for an explosion of sorts from Siobhan Redmond which never really arrived. But, her performance was consistent and creepily calm throughout. Redmond’s vacant delivery was chilling and, at times, completely mesmerising.
I loved Hill’s nods to various ‘dark’ influences; ranging from Derren Brown (particularly accentuated by the plinky plonky music which accompanies the second act, brilliantly composed by Dan Jones) to directors such as David Lynch and, in the play’s most base and bodily moments, Rob Zombie. Doctor Faustus is a bold and memorable piece of theatre which marks an exciting new chapter in the timeline of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with new artistic director James Brining at the helm.
Doctor Faustus is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse now, until March 16th. Tickets from £12.