Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

Faustus

April and May are big months for Games of Thrones fans, not only does the sixth season premiere next Sunday but two of its biggest young stars are taking to the London stage in back-to-back theatres. Next month Richard Madden (who played Robb Stark) opens as the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet alongside his Cinderella co-star Downton’s Lily James. First, however is Kit Harington in Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated and lurid Faustus which starts press previews later this week with official reviews expected in the early hours of 26 April. Yet on leaving the theatre this weekend we were handed postcards actively asking for feedback which prompted this preview piece.

When an actor is widely associated with one particular role, it can be very difficult for audiences to see them as anyone else, and – especially when they’re young – for critics to forget they did anything before. Jon Snow may have made Harington an international star, but his theatre experience includes highly credible roles in War Horse and Posh. Some actors are content to spend their careers playing much the same part – a variant on their own personality – and in Hollywood it’s virtually obligatory where the film is sold on the star name rather than character. The more chameleonic actor, who disappears entirely into their role every time, is considerably more interesting to me, and in the UK it’s often down to shrewd choices. So an actor who gets their big break on TV, like Tennant or Cumberbatch, can still do varied and brilliant work that takes their new fans with them.  And it seems that Harington may do the same – whether Jon Snow lives or dies we will soon know, but with an emotional role in Testament of Youth under his belt and now this grimy take on Faustus, his diversity will stand him in good stead.

You can always rely on Jamie Lloyd for innovation and while this modern day retelling may have some purists (and probably critics) huffing into their programme, it manages to mix the drama and potency of Marlowe’s original language with modern themes about the pursuit of celebrity that make for a discomforting yet compelling evening. Most radical is the decision to utilise Marlowe’s text for most of the first half and at the end of the second, while in between adding additional scenes by Colin Teevan to form a theatrical cut-and-shut. Unlike its vehicular equivalent however this really works and gives Faustus’s ‘glory years’ a surreal or dream-like quality that for him seem to flash past in an instant.

Utilising the necromancy skills he employs to conjure Lucifer and his hoard, Faustus becomes not just any celebrity but, after watching David Copperfield on TV, a star magician, wowing the world with his power to control all things and we get to see a few magic tricks and theatrical slight-of-hand as part of the fun – it’s all done with a graphic-novel-like silliness that only serves to make everything else more unpalatable. This is an inspired plot point that neatly marries Marlowe’s original tale with the company’s insinuation of a similarly soulless modern desire for fame at any price. It uses a reality-celebrity feel to give a new twist to traditional allusions, including at one point a naked Adam and Eve that seems to question both heaven and hell as aspirational concepts. In fact of the seven deadly sins (brilliantly enacted by Tom Edden) it is lust that frequently rears its head in this production as scantily clad characters occasionally grope and pleasure each other. But it’s always shabby and sordid showing how easily corrupted Faustus was for grubby earthly desires.

Lloyd achieves a dark contemporary feel extremely well and is made manifest in the (ever-brilliant) Soutra Gilmour set. As the audience take their seat Faustus sits staring brainlessly at the TV in a seedy-looking flat as modern devil-based pop classics blare out; everything is soiled and worn with age, a depressing motel-like set-up, making Faustus’s choice to sell his soul his only chance of escape from this disgusting drone-like existence, rather than just vanity. The sordidness of this deal is ever-present and as the set pulls apart to reveal a series of nasty theatre Green Rooms and hotels, that are a far cry from the glamour he craves, there may be colour, adulation and success but it all has a depressing tinge, a constant reminder of the price he’s yet to pay.

Harington is a conflicted Faustus and while he constantly doubts his decision, it is never suggested he is a good man led astray. On the contrary Harington’s Faustus has a dark heart which always overrides his conscience, driven by his want of public recognition and frequent lusts. It is only when he achieves it that he finds he’s made an empty bargain and seeks something pure and real with his assistant played by Jade Anouka (one of two roles perfectly recast as women). This performance is so interesting because it’s not a straight projection from nothing to everything; instead Harington makes him waver and at times even to skirt regret only to resurge into arrogance, feeling it all worthwhile. As the years pass too quickly those lows become more pronounced as his fame tails off with nothing to show for it and Harington is at his best in these later scenes as desperation gives way to resignation as he performs some dark and unforgiveable acts. As Lucifer finally appears to collect his due back in the old apartment, you’re left wondering if any of it was real. It is an absorbing and nuanced performance that will only grow more emotional as the run continues.

The role of Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s companion who is ‘lent’ to Faustus for his 24 year reign is being played by Jenna Russell who almost steals the show with a performance of comedic envy that is a joy to watch and constantly unsettling. Faustus primarily engages with two characters during his fame – Wagner and Mephistopheles – and by making them both women adds a much needed gender balance as well as emphasising the battle between them for his attention. Russell is a brutal guardian, pushing Faustus towards his dreams but serving as a constant reminder of Lucifer’s power, never allowing Faustus to enjoy himself too much in case he tries to break the pact. We’re even treated to a mini-concert including Better the Devil Your Know and Devil Woman after the interval which is a rousing opener to Act Two.

Forbes Mason is a brilliantly squalid Lucifer, who commands a pack of devils that silently surround Faustus at all times dressed in soiled underwear and t-shirts. They seem to spring from the dingy flat he lives in, reflecting as the set does that distasteful bargain with even Faustus himself wearing a dirty tracksuit for much of the show until even he succumbs to underwear as his destiny comes ever closer – one of the real successes of this production is how fully realised this grubbiness is and how it continues to haunt Faustus.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is vibrant, and as previously seen with The Ruling Class and The Homecoming, teeters always on the edge of sinister and bizarre. The vision he creates on stage here is brash and unnerving, seamlessly integrating centuries old speeches and imagery with modern pop culture influences that make for a fascinating and thought-provoking night at the theatre. Lloyd’s theatre company has a mission to engage with first-time theatre goers and if the rows of teenage girls are anything to go by, Faustus has succeeded in attracting them. It may be the young star that has got them through the door but his performance and the Lloyd-Gilmour vision will show them that London theatre is as exciting as it’s ever been. And with Branagh promising a contemporary two-hour Romeo and Juliet in the theatre behind this one, it’s not just Game of Thrones fans who have lots to look forward to this April and May.

Faustus is at the Duke of Yorks Theatre until 25 June with tickets from £15. This season is part of the £15 Mondays scheme allowing you to purchase reduced price tickets for any Monday in that month available on on 3 May and 1 June.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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