Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. With Paul Hilton, Arthur Darvill, Felix Scott, et al. Directed by Matthew Dunster. At Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, London. Viewed on 4th September, 2011; running until 2nd October, 2011.
According to the Puritan William Prynne, during one of the earliest performances of “Doctor Faustus,” real devils suddenly appeared in the theatre, causing shrieks from the huddled audience at the “fearful sight.” While this is probably just a piece of what we would now call tabloid sensationalism, such myths as were propagated about Marlowe’s celebrated play serve to remind us how Renaissance audiences thought they could see, and really did see, dark forces doing their work among them. Witchcraft was not the stuff of bestselling children’s fiction, but had tangible effects on the known world: a belief that is still held today among certain religious quarters, and a belief that would manifest itself most explosively and infamously in the Salem and Pendle witch trials, of course.
“Faustus” is partly a response to the problem of evil, but also it is partly a response to what the trailer for this production succinctly describes as “want[ing] what we can’t have.” Tempted by the prospect of omnipotence, the titular Faustus agrees to sell his soul to the Devil after twenty-four years in exchange for absolute power in the intervening period – with more than a little assistance from Lucifer’s right-hand man, Mephistopheles. The scholar from Wittenberg dreams of securing all the knowledge there is in the world, having exhausted what he can from – to quote another play – words, words, words, and yet his ambitions are eluded: instead he plays tricks on the Pope, conjures pretty females from thin air and generally wastes his time. Tellingly, when Faustus asks Mephistopheles about the nature of Hell, he glibly refuses to answer: it is only when his time is almost up that Faustus sees the abyss of hell, revealed from behind the stage in all its horror.
But the experience begins as soon as you enter the theatre. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the recreated Globe was not designed in keeping with today’s theatregoing conventions; the fact of just being inside the so-called “wooden O” thus gives you some insight into the Renaissance mindset. Our performance took place on a clear evening when the threat of rain (let alone fire or plague!) thankfully failed to materialise, and lines were interrupted several times by the roar of helicopters high above us, an echo of the background noise the original spectators must have had to endure. It was more like seeing a gig at Reading fest than a highlight of Renaissance drama, as we watched while standing, in the Yard, the area immediately surrounding the acting space (the best place to be to get the full effect of any Globe staging in my view). The open-air format really collapses the barrier between actor and audience – participation is actively, some might say wilfully, encouraged – and can even lend a show an atmosphere you wouldn’t be able to achieve with the artifice of an indoor playhouse, as on this particular occasion. The night closing in around us became a very visible reminder of the predicament facing Faustus: that he is always bending to time’s will and not the other way around. The giving up of his soul is the ultimate kind of ultimatum. Indeed, perhaps the bitterest irony of the play is that for all of the power ostensibly attributed to Faustus, he forgets to write a ‘get-out’ clause into the bargain: the power to save himself from his own damnation.
Arthur Darvill on paper seems as though he’d be better suited to the role of Faustus, but here is absolutely convincing as Mephistopheles, with a wicked balance of charisma, charm and sarcasm. Such is the sheer theatricality of the character that you forget for an instant that this is an actor we see week in and week out on Saturday evenings as an altogether different sort of companion. Paul Hilton’s Faustus gives “Marlowe’s mighty line” a rich expressiveness, doing more than enough justice to the dramatist’s verse, particularly in the climactic scenes. As the comic interlopers, Felix Scott (as Wagner) and are excellent relief, as does the presence of the Seven Deadly Sins, who clearly relished the potential of their roles to only add to the mayhem.
And yet it is Dunster’s direction that is the true marvel here, skilfully conflating elements from both the A- and B-texts, playing to the advantages of both: the economy of the A’s earlier scenes mixed with the B’s grander speeches, slapstick and more overtly anti-Catholic satire. If anything a bit too much emphasis is given to the farce, although it nicely counterbalances the much more sinister tone the play takes later on. His decision to opt for sixteenth-century costumes and staging practices, however, is spot on, and the drama is thrillingly enhanced by some awesome set pieces. This is one diabolical production you wouldn’t want to miss.
Rating: ****1/2 out of 5
This critical essay was previously published on 'The Student Journals' at: http://www.thestudentjournals.co.uk/culture/theatre/477-devilish-delights-at-the-globe