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