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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DOCTOR FAUSTUS
at Shakespeare’s Globe

SOME CONTRACTS ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN...NOT
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Arthur Darvill/ Ph: Keith Pattison

One of the great virtues of the Globe is the renewed sense of the excitement in Elizabethan drama played out under the open skies, in what Hamlet calls “this brave o-er hanging firmament, the air, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” 
 
And in the case of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s great blaspheming seeker after knowledge and sensuality, our naughty hero wages war, quite literally, against the heavens. Good and bad angels fly in to vie for his soul, but he’s already signed in blood to Lucifer, whose agent Mephistopheles holds him to his word.
 
It’s a thrilling scenario, and I’ve rarely felt it come alive as it does in Matthew Dunster’s inventive and resourceful production, in which Paul Hilton plays a mean and moody Faustus, intellectually inquisitive and physically susceptible, if not the lyrical tragedian the RSC has provided in Eric Porter (the best Faust ever) or Ian McKellen.
 
No play of Shakespeare’s, not even Macbeth, combines the spiritual and supernatural with worldly activities to the extent it does in Faustus. And Dunster makes a great connection between magic and knavery in the low-life scenes involving Faust’s servant, Wagner, the clown Robin and an ostler, or a horse-minder, familiar from Ben Jonson or the Gadshill escapade in Henry IV.
 
It’s no accident that RSC veteran Nigel Cooke plays not only Lucifer, the first fallen angel, but also a desiccated Pope (whose banquet Faust disrupts en route to re-establishing the papal enemy in his rightful place) and a horse-course at the centre of the parallel farcical action, doused in water and mooning at the audience.
 
These scenes reestablish the play as both medieval morality and modern Elizabethan drama. “This is hell, nor am I out of it,” says Mephisto, early on, and it’s a persistent idea that all life on earth is somehow flawed and sinful, an idea combated not only by the brio and humanity of the farcical scenes, but also by the poetry of sensuality Marlowe gives Faustus, especially as that life slips away from him.
 
In a sense, we’ve all made the same bargain by being alive anyway. Unless we’re Trappist monks, of course. Which is why the vision of Helen drives home the poignancy of our condition, Faust’s last shot at sensual salvation – “Make me immortal” – fired in the kiss of the world’s most beautiful woman.
 
In death, too, Faust throws another desperate card: “I’ll burn my books,” a sin as heinous as any. In the parade of the seven deadly sins, done as a farcical dance of spirits in black and red matching silks and skullcaps, Envy declares he cannot read and therefore wishes all books be burned. Faust has consumed all available knowledge and wants to break the bounds of propriety by going beyond.
 
This is where his anti-religiousness resides, and where we meet a modern scientist and necromancer, the experimental astrologist and time traveller. The balance of our secular sympathy moves in his favour, especially when his campaign against the Pope, in this production, is justifiable on political and humanitarian grounds. The dispersal of the mumbling Friars at the papal banquet is as enjoyable as the dousing of the slippery horse-courser.
 
“Talk not of paradise or creation; talk of the devil, and nothing else,” counsels Lucifer, and designer Paul Wills gets down to it, well backed by puppetry consultant Stephen Tip

 


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