Dark Night of the Soul – The Globe

Dark Night of the Soul - The Globe

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus remains one of the most frequently performed plays in London along with Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, plays that appear again and again in locations as diverse as pub theatres, former railway arches and, of course, the big playhouse. While Jamie Lloyd’s 2016 modern version staring Kit Harrington proved divisive, the Globe is offering a more traditional staging as part of its winter season in the Jacobean-esque Sam Wanamaker space. But someone at the Globe may have sold their soul to the devil after all because it is the companion piece Dark Night of the Soul that is exactly the kind of successful initiative they need.

Michelle Terry’s first year in charge has been a mixed one, and while she has earned praise for her own central performances across a number of productions, the overall summer season was relatively unadventurous, with even the hailed return of Mark Rylance to the Globe stage as Iago producing an unsatisfactory Othello. Yet, the 2019 repertory list champions female-led interpretations of the major history plays, following in the footsteps of the Donmar Warehouse who received rave reviews for its Shakespeare trilogy in 2016. With all-female casts scheduled to perform both Henry IV plays and Henry V, 2019 is set to be a year of empowerment at the theatre.

While the classical canon is filled with stories about men, female actors assuming traditionally male roles is only half the story, what is needed are new stories written by and about women, just as we need the perspectives of all kinds of under-represented voices. Here Terry is definitely ahead of the curve, dedicating space in the winter programme to five writers conjuring five very different responses to Faustian myths. Collectively these plays, known together as Dark Night of the Soul, have been scheduled on four anthology evenings in January and February in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as well as being offered as individual productions (with reduced pricing) in the tiny Tiring House behind the Globe mainstage.

Dark Night of the Soul is clearly a collective work in progress but, alongside programme notes and talks, it is a really smart way to look at the far-reaching effects of a particular play and the universality of the concepts it raises. This is exactly the kind of intellectual exercise modern theatres should engage in, questioning and re-evaluating the themes, impact and value of well-known work to a modern audience, while offering creative opportunities for new writers to stage plays in established companies. Using the prism of female experience opens-up the play to five alternative responses which through comedy, family dramas and supernatural experiences proves we are all still grappling with Marlowe’s concept of selling the soul for a moment of happiness.

The evening opens with Athena Stevens’s play Recompense which draws on the moment that Faustus’s past finally catches up with him and he must pay the price for 25-years of good living.  Transposed to a modern doctor’s office, a disabled woman arrives for a consultation only to reveal her life was determined at birth by the very doctor (Mandi Symonds) she has come to see. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Stevens’s character takes the doctor back to her original mistake and its daily consequences.

Stevens, most recently seen at the Barbican in Redefining Juliet, writes frequently about our perception of character based largely on performance tradition rather than anything specified in the text, creating a narrow basis for casting. Stevens argues that audiences as well as directors and producers have preconceived expectations that she uses her own work to challenge, and here Stevens uses Recompense to draw attention to the ways in which an individual life can be defined by external forces, by how you look, speak, move and, in this case, someone’s failure or inability to act at the crucial moment which set the character’s life on an entirely different course as a result of that negligence.

Of all the one-act pieces in this collection, it has the most directly confrontational message and the characters become ciphers to serve that particular end – the doctor must realise her faults and the patient is there to champion a form of justice. Consequently, Recompense has the least potential to expand into a fuller piece, but it does engage with the supernatural aspects of Marlowe’s play as well as the idea of the past catching-up with you, of there always being a price to pay.

The French Welcome by Lily Bevan, by contrast, has a much larger life than the snippet presented here. The most accomplished short of the night, it is set in 1604, as the first performances of Doctor Faustus were being staged, watched by Marie Mountjoy the French wife of a jeweller who makes tiaras and happens to be Shakespeare’s landlady. Captivated by the themes of the play and visited by Mephistopheles (an excellent Louis Maskell), Marie debates the lot of women with her maid who reveals a sickness she can no longer conceal, and fears of being sold to the local brothel-keeper by Marie’s husband Christopher. On consulting their local physician, Marie realises that a sacrifice is needed.

Bevan’s play is a joy, combining an interesting approach to Marlowe’s play and its effect on contemporary viewers (nicely tying it back to Shakespeare – so a double tick for The Globe), with a cheeky engaging humour that draws in the room. Playing Marie, Bevan charms the audience immediately as her smart and sassy character is filled with enthusiasm for the life-changing production she has seen, leading her to question the extent to which women have the same freedom as Faustus to make choices about a fulfilling life of comfort, travel and contentment.

The key to its success is to wrap these debates in a warmly engaging shell that makes the audience part of the story. The characters frequently speak directly to the crowd, and while a restrained use of Allo Allo pronunciation earns some laughs for the leading lady, the good-natured audience-participation adds to the inclusive effect of the show – without leaving their seats, one man becomes her not so secret lover, while others have a hilarious Pauline McLynn as Dr Simon Forman read their palm and examine the majestic qualities of their middle finger. This is a play that demands more time, easily suggesting several ways in which Bevan can expand it to a fuller length.

Just before the interval Amanda Wilkin’s The Little Sob looks at confessions, shame and redemption in a reality TV-style set-up that is influenced as much by Black Mirror as Doctor Faustus. Wendy Kweh is a presenter offering strangers the chance to reveal their guilty secrets, relieving the burden on their conscience while providing entertainment to everyone watching. As Wilkin’s character talks about body image and telling white lies to her friends to stay home, a more troubling story of inaction and collusion is revealed.

Wilkin’s play takes a slightly different perspective on the selling of souls and, rather than a single bargain, considers the slow erosion caused by bad behaviour, indifference and the self-preservation we all prioritise over helping others. Being silent, she argues, is just as dangerous and damaging, while refusing to get involved can be more shaming than doing the wrong thing. The reality game-show construct is an interesting one, using Kweh’s insensitive presenter as one devil revelling in the contestant’s misfortune, while Lucie Sword plays the more nervous, angelic, voice of reason. Again, this scenario has considerable possibility for expansion, building on some of the issues it raises about sexual misconduct and supportiveness, as well as the visibility of individuals in the age of social media.

The second half begins with Katie Hims’s Three Minutes After Midnight, an intriguing short story about the ownership and commercialisation of memory. Set in a hospice run by unseen nuns, two women gather at the bedside of a dying relative whose life has been far more interesting than her daughter, Corporate Lawyer Daisy (Lily Bevan), ever realised. When a big family secret is exposed, Daisy’s relationship with her playwright aunt deteriorates further when she discovers scenes from real life in her latest draft and insists her aunt (another excellent performance from Pauline McLynn) asks permission from her mother before it’s too late.

The detailed characterisation of the two women onstage, as well as the unseen dying mother at the centre of revelations suggests this should be the start of a much larger work for Hims who could take the story in a number of different directions. Three Minutes After Minute looks back to two sisters growing-up in a strict Catholic Ireland and having to support each other through their own childhood tragedy, but it also leaves open a future track in which the writer-aunt must endure the consequences of whichever choice she makes about plundering her own life for art and the burden of creativity that require the sale of part of her soul for success.

This idea of theatre and the dramatic process as the acquisition of other people’s thoughts, voices and experiences is exactly what drives Souled Out, the concluding section written by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence. With a few scenes distributed between the earlier plays to allow for tiny set changes, this partly stand-up, partly-acted show is a crowd-pleasing examination of the Faustian bargain. The writers have interviewed women from the Southwark area, asking them about their biggest wishes, the biggest lie they ever told and what they would be prepared to sacrifice to achieve their desires.

Performed by the writers, they adopt the voices, accents and intonation of the original speaker whose responses are fed to them through ipods that the audience cannot hear. Often hilarious, real answers about magically tidy houses provide an impression of surprisingly domestic aspirations, an unexpected confession of perjury and the public’s muddled knowledge of Marlowe’s original story. As Hammond and Spence swap their angel wings for black masks, you realise the switch they’re pulling on us, implying their own (jokingly) mercenary approach to plundering and exaggerating reality to create successful art, and the cannibalistic process of theatre that feeds-off the emotions and experiences of others.

Dark Night of the Soul is exactly the kind of work the Globe and similar spaces with multiple auditoria should be doing, creating opportunities for mentored new writing programmes that simultaneously reinforce appreciation for the season’s big classical show. With Shakespeare’s Henry-plays this summer, there is a chance to engage with ideas of leadership, duty, revolt against expectation, and the cost of responsibility for others, as well as opening-up the perspective of the women in the plays, conquered as part of the land-grabbing actions of the male characters. The five plays in Dark Night of the Soul together have much to say about Doctor Faustus so let’s make this a regular exercise. More please!

Dark Night of the Soul is at The Globe until 1 February. See the plays individually in the Tiring House for £3 or in the full anthology nights in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. 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. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

9 responses to “Dark Night of the Soul – The Globe

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    This is certainly the highlight of my trip so far but that, in itself, is not saying much. Baal at the Bridewell was very weak – with the added annoyance that the company were clearly very pleased with themselves – and I’d really rather not mention the Twickenham Hedda Gabler.

    “ what is needed are new stories written by and about women, just as we need the perspectives of all kinds of under-represented voices”

    I certainly agree with you to the extent that I am usually far more keen to see under-represented groups making concrete advances in representation than messing about with classics as if pretending that Polonius was Polonia is progress. Gender blind and colour blind casting are useful stop gaps (after all it is acting and if they’re good enough an actor should be able to portray someone very different from themselves) but I sometimes wonder how many A Taste of Honeys, A Raisin in the Suns or Top Girls have been lost because the potential author was busy pretending Shakespeare wrote more big women’s parts than was actually the case.

    I suspect our perspectives on this are very different but, as with Tomorrow at Noon last year, we unerringly agree on which was the strongest piece here. The French Welcome was very fine, both from the writing and the performance points of view and, like you, I’d be interested to see it expanded. It certainly promises to be more fun than what I saw of, say, Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow which my friends raved about.

    Where we probably differ most is in that I thought a couple of the pieces, The Little Sob and Souled Out, rather weak. I liked the other two but thought them neatly self-contained and not particularly suitable for expansion.

    I enjoyed the evening and would certainly be interested in more of the same, though I suspect the female perspective is better served by full tilt engagement with the mainstream than by the contrivance of plays ‘by and about women’. Sweat, for example, effortlessly put female characters front and centre without, to me anyway, any loss of universal applicability. As with Top Girls (or, indeed, Ab Fab) it’s more a case of the central characters being women than the play being about women.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love has a short run at the Tower theatre next month. I can’t speak for the production but the play is very much about women (and not just Ruth Ellis) with just the one man (a sympathetic character but essentially little more than a plot device). Catch it if you can.

    I’m hoping tomorrow’s The Ruffian on the Stair will be the highlight of this trip. Have you booked for that? The similarities to The Room are very striking – so much so that if Pinter and Orton weren’t such ‘acquired tastes’ I’d suspect the Hope of cashing in on Pinter at the Pinter. The play starts with Joyce giving her hubby his meal, then he goes off to drive his van. A visitor arrives needing somewhere to stay. He may or may not be a figure from Joyce’s past and he has a bit of secret knowledge. Sound familiar? I won’t give the plot details away but if you do go I bet you’ll be ticking off the similarities as they appear. Orton, of course, took Pinter’s black and bizarre sense of humour to a whole new level and I expect this play is less easily ruined by poor performances than, say, Loot or What the Butler Saw. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – I glad you had a chance to see this given its relatively short run and it lifted an otherwise disappointing visit.

      I think we largely agree here which is a nice, and we certainly need new writing commissions for different under-represented groups to tell their stories. I’m more ambivalent about gender-blind casting, I’m in favour if the actor or the production has something new to say, and it can be a way of illuminating the text, although there are occasions when it can be gimmicky. I think in regard to the Bridge’s Julius Caesar, you made a interesting point about whether a female actor plays a traditionally male role as if they were a man or changes the character’s gender to female, but that distinction is not always fully formed and would be an interesting one to explore as part of the rehearsal period.

      Like you, I hope we reach a point where such plays are part of the mainstream, of which Sweat is an excellent example, but there is still some way to go so, for now, every little helps. And I do hope it becomes a regular part of the The Globe programme, encouraging new writing of all kinds led by the main show(s) of each season.

      The parallels between the Ruffian on the Stair and The Room are very striking sounds like a PhD thesis waiting to happen, maybe something for you to contemplate in the time between shows! Hope you enjoyed it.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I enjoyed it well enough. The exquisite comic timing required for Orton’s wicked humour is a rare gift and perhaps this cast didn’t quite have it, but it was a fair effort; and it was good to have the chance to see a professional, albeit very much ‘Fringe’, production. Adam Buchanan as Wilson rather overplayed the gay subtext, I thought, and as well as the timing being not quite perfect there was a worrying deviation from the text which made me wonder whether it was a slip or if somebody didn’t fully understand the plot*. I’m still very glad I saw it though, for overall quality, The French Welcome is still probably the highlight of this trip.

    I managed to book for the two Arthur Millers at the Old Vic – fairly late in each run (March and May) so you’ll almost certainly see them before me; but I got the Senior concession of best seats available at thirty quid for matinees and bagged front stalls for each. Like you, I might have to miss The Price because it seems there won’t be a day seat scheme and, as with True West, I don’t want it badly enough to pay a lot or take a bad seat. Things can change, though – especially after Press Night! I’ve also got advance bookings for Rutherford and Son in Sheffield, the pre-London run of Orpheus Descending in Mold and the Almeida’s Three Sisters where Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran team up again – which is quite an unusual amount of early booking for me – and I’m still thinking of the Strindberg/Brenton double bill at JST.

    *if you get to see it, listen out for the line where, in the text, Mike accuses Joyce of squandering her aunt’s legacy on “cards for tobacconists’ windows”. Last night Gary Webster clearly said “cards from tobacconists” – which, in itself, makes a kind of sense as he might mean greetings cards or even cigarette cards, which people still collected in those days; but Orton’s original line clearly refers to advertisements for the kind of personal services Joyce used to offer.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Your knowledge of the text is illuminating once again, and as you say completely changes the meaning of that line. Wonder if that’s a deliberate choice or an error.

      Certainly looking forward to the Miller run at the Old Vic and I also have the Three Sisters in the diary – good to have things to look forward to. I tend to book in advance just because I can’t do day seat queues and this generally guarantees the best prices. Certainly anything at £15 or £20 is snapped up fairly quickly on release.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “Wonder if that’s a deliberate choice or an error.”

    I think an error is more likely. For one thing, I didn’t spot any other deviations from the text. Secondly, if the director were going to amend the text there would usually be an obvious explanation, even if it’s one people like me don’t approve. It’s true that fewer people these days would remember the times when tobacconists’ windows would display little cards advertising ‘Continental Model’, ‘French Lessons’ etc but the altered line doesn’t really clarify. It’s also hard to imagine the director was sanitizing the script. The Park Theatre’s Loot changed some lines that might shock modern sensibilities and, while I don’t agree with this, it’s clear why they did it. For example, in Hal’s description of his ideal brothel (Orton seems rather preoccupied with prostitution) the line ‘I’d have a spade bird. I don’t agree with the colour bar. And a Finnish bird…’ was changed to ‘I’d have a black bird….’ You might also have noticed that Harry’s reference to ‘nigger brown teeth’ in Pinter’s The Collection was changed to ‘chocolate brown teeth’ in the Jamie Lloyd production. In TRotS, though, direct and often fairly crude, references to prostitution are kept in so it’s hard to imagine that this particular line was changed to spare anyone’s blushes. What concerns me is how an actor who understood the line could make such an error but I’m probably over-thinking and, after all, a slip is just a slip.

    “I tend to book in advance just because I can’t do day seat queues”

    I scan the online listings for good deals but my situation is complicated by the fact that I need to book trains and hotels to match. Often I’m lucky but day seats are a big part of my strategy; and I’m quite omnivorous so if I fail to get a day seat for a particular production I can usually switch to something else.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Thanks for the extra context John. Cards in newsagent windows still seem to be a thing but as you say sounds like an error and perhaps not indicative of anything else.

      I’ll return to Dark Night of the Soul now in case anyone has any other comments on this production. Look forward to hearing about your next visit.

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