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What’s it all about Faustie?

This was the question that kept percolating in my thoughts as a myriad of alarming and grotesque scenes and images cascaded across and onto the stage.

An endless stream of dribble from the silent, open mouth of the titular character. A Cross-dressing angel. Vomiting up obsidian liquid or bleach white muck. A rape. Full frontal nudity. A near drowning in a toilet. A small concert. Satan in a nappy of sorts. An apartment that can fracture and re-align. A shower that results in a blood bath. A ghastly moment with “black truffles and caviar” that is difficult to watch, harder to forget. Some quite good magic. A vivid suicide involving a gun in the mouth. Sexual ambiguity and extremity. A flash of Faustian arse. Colour and movement of almost every conceivable kind. Spooky levitation. Flashes of fire. Watchful ghouls/zombies/angels in various states of undress. A permanent sense of excess and confusion.

When the production ended, one thing was quite clear. This was not a play in the traditional sense; rather it is a theatrical spectacle of remarkable vision and wide parameters. Like a wild symphony, this is an all-consuming ride. It seeks to examine the price and pain of fame and celebrity and the extremes to which modern society will go to embrace, encourage and emulate superstardom. It does this in a frenzied and quite unrelenting way and, as part of the fabric of the exploration and examination of the central aims, it has a true celebrity at its core. And this celebrity engages in all manner of bizarre conduct, including exposing his finely toned torso and finely sculpted arse to unrelenting scrutiny, as part of this production, partly, at least, to ensure further acclamation and celebrity. So the manner and method of the production plays directly into the themes and topics under examination in the production. A meta-cocktail as it were.

Taken in that way, this is a remarkable achievement. It is aggressive and unrelenting, intoxicating and seductive, repellent and engaging – all concurrently. It’s brash, bold and brilliant; an occasion when the devil is not in the detail but pretty much everywhere and in everyone.

It has the most tenuous connection with Marlowe’s original work – literature, philosophy and theology are not much in play here – but that is not problematic. The new material written by Colin Teevan to replace the disputed middle section of the work attributed to Marlowe, is the compelling pulse-setter here, and the excess and extravagance upon which Teevan focuses infects/imbues everything else with its reflected exuberance. Director Lloyd certainly runs with this – this is a production in a different stratosphere from his recent work, even The Maids which, despite its excesses, was clearly a production of Genet’s play. This production of Doctor Faustus, now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, takes a quite different path.

imageIn a way, this production seems to owe its existence, at least in part, to European techniques, particularly German and Dutch influences. It’s not that this Doctor Faustus could/would have been staged this way by someone from that domain, more that the success of, particularly, Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge, has created a climate in which productions like this Doctor Faustus are considered possible, potentially profitable, both artistically and critically.

Lloyd has run with the potential, spectacularly, and this production of Doctor Faustus succeeds way more than it fails; individual moments may be inscrutable, opaque or impervious to comprehension, but the overall shape, feel and endgame is perfectly clear. And it should appeal to new theatre goers, always an important aim for any theatre practitioner.

It might be risky and shocking, but Lloyd uses celebrity to examine celebrity and he puts both his stars through extraordinary and no doubt difficult experiences. Kit Harington loses his clothes, wallows in blood and debasement and becomes a sexual plaything for the other cast members; Jenna Russell, an Olivier Award winner and a Tony Award nominee, is made to sing for her supper. You certainly leave in no doubt about the price of fame in the modern world and the production gives you much to think about and debate. It is stimulating and provocative, from first to last.

Lloyd is no fool. Working out that large numbers of the audiences for his production of Doctor Faustus may have come not because of the lure of seeing a Christopher Marlowe play in the West End but to check out Kit Harington, world famous for his portrayal of Jon Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Lloyd worked out a sure-fire way to ensure that Harington’s initial appearance on stage would not result in a shrieking wave of adoration from the auditorium.

Harington is first seen on stage long minutes before the action starts. He is first of all, vulnerable and silent, found sitting on a toilet, occupied in the minutiae of life. Well, you can’t clap someone and hoot and holler for them when they are defecating now can you?

Harington then sits in front of a small television set and drools, like a simpleton or a heroin addict, perhaps both, for what seems like an entire season of Games of Thrones. There is nothing about Jon Snow here; little even that resonates as Harington. He is completely this strange, sad, very small creature, bereft and alone. And from that starting point, uninterrupted by mood cracking celebrity applause, Lloyd lights the blue touch paper.

Looked at one way, that entire opening sequence provides the key to the work. Harington is playing a broken loser who fantasises about being an uber celebrity magician, adored by millions the world over. What follows then, outlandish and irreverent, can be seen as the extrapolation of the loser’s fantasy – perhaps a heroin trip gone badly wrong. In any event, it does not have to make sense; it just needs to evoke a response, create a tapestry that electrifies and repulses.

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With the aid of a clearly demonic Apple device, Harington’s character embarks upon a manic and maniacal ride. Full kudos to Harington – he is never less than fully involved in every aspect of his character’s derision and humiliation. Yes, he enjoys the highs; but he aches and agonises in the lows. It’s a tremulously vital and exposed performance – as far away from the introspective Jon Snow as could be imagined.

Harington provides the centrifugal force for the production. He is the point of singularity around which everything else, rightly, revolves.

But Harington is not a one-man band. He has able and virtuoso assistance from a great cast. Brian Gilligan and Danielle Flett are spooky and disturbing as a kind of anti-Adam and Eve, their unabashed nakedness like a creeping tentacle of rancid ardour. They bring the darkness to Harington’s Faustus and once they have opened the door, he never looks back.

The attribute you most want Satan to display is…what? Vulgarity? Viciousness? Vanity? Vileness? Venom? Vapidity? Vengefulness? Some other V word?

Forbes Masson, often nearly naked, sometimes with black ooze decorating his pate, displays every V word you can name, but his prime characteristic is that he is Filthy. And that, too, is wildly appropriate.

Demonic in appearance, vacant in aspect, a cruel, empty soul waiting to consume Faustus any way he can, Masson’s Lucifer is the ultimate modern devil – he offers everything and delivers nothing. It’s a chilling and detached performance of great glee and rancour, a compelling mix of vitriol and vibrancy. Part vampire, part Politican, part banker – Masson channels soullessness in a spartan but all-encompassing way. He is terrific.

imageThe programme identifies two angels: the Good (Tom Edden) and the Evil (Craig Steen). Given the way each behaves, it is difficult to see why Edden is Good and Stein is Evil. Perhaps that is Lloyd’s point about Angels? Stein has the better body and cross-dresses – could that be it? Or is it more about the colour of the liquid he vomits up – hellish black in Stein’s case and lurid white in Edden’s?

Both angels seem less than ideal companions and both seem more narcissistic than good Angels should be. Both try to drown Faustus, or at least torture him, in the water in his toilet and both participate in the shower that ends in rivulets of blood flowing down Faustus’s pristine body. Neither of them reek kindness or any identifiable angelic quality.

Only one takes on the burden of personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is Edden and it is a tour de force moment for him as he essays each of the seven reviled attributes with a comic sensibility that is finely tuned and a melancholic realism that makes you itch with unpleasantness. His Sloth is exceptional, but then so is his Lust and Gluttony – and one can’t really fault his Pride, Envy, Wrath or Greed. Edden proves a man for all seasons of virtuoso vice. This is an inspired take on this section of Marlowe’s play.

The objectification of women, however, was troubling. Sure, there were naked men on stage, but none were subjected to rape. Each of Danielle Fleet, Gabby Wong and Jade Anouka were either naked, wholly or in part, or on the wrong end of sexual violence. If Faustus had been sexually assaulted by the Angels or Satan, or vice versa, there might have been a level playing field, but this aspect of the scenario did seem rather shallow and trite.

Certainly the glory of the face that launched a thousand ships speech, the one truly hypnotic poetic moment in Marlowe’s original, was discombobulated by the brutality that ensued in its wake, but, absent a sound purpose, it just seemed like a Games of Thrones rip-off rape scene of the kind to which Harington had not been party on television. New frontiers? Maybe. A trope too far? Undoubtedly.

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Jenna Russell is magnificent as an androgynous, insinuating Mephistopheles, with a close cropped hairdo that would not have been out of place in Auschwitz. Given the role this Mephistopheles plays in advancing Faustus’ showbiz career, perhaps there is a point Lloyd was making?

Russell is commanding throughout, ambivalent and amoral. Her delivery of the dialogue is weighty, portentous even, and she adds a lustre to Teevan’s prose which might exceed its entitlements.

She matches Harington’s commitment effortlessly, inspiringly. And her Bat Out Of Hell cover just prior to the commencement of the second Act is thrilling. And apt. And funny. Listening to her magnificent vocals, you do wonder if she has sold her soul to the devil. Russell is absolutely superb.

There is especially good work from Garmon Rhys, who, throughout proceedings, is a half-naked vulpine watcher, ever alert, ever disturbing. Almost ever silent. He is difficult to ignore, so completely engaged is his background performance.

As ever, Soutra Gilmour provides an evocative and super smart set design. It is difficult to pin down the precise period in which the events play out, but one suspects timelessness is part of the point. Jon Clark’s lighting is assiduously deft, with the disparity between light and dark being tested and tempered in a ghoulish palette of unfriendliness and excess.

Scott Penrose provides very cool special effects (aka magic tricks) and although none are world-shattering, all are sympathetic to the production and tricksy in an unqualified way.

This is not Doctor Faustus as Marlowe wrote it. But it is a volcanic outpouring of theatricality and talent.

One may never know what it was all about, but one will never forget it.

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Doctor Faustus
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.