There’s a lovely irony to the Globe making Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus part of their The Word Is God season. Faustus is a demonic tale and one in which words, books, can be tools of evil, can lead you terribly astray.
Marlowe’s best known play is packaged here in a marvellously batty production by director Matthew Dunster; though it sometimes plays more like a cautionary children’s tale than chilling psychological tragedy, it is as enticing and entertaining as the devious spirits that Faustus follows blindly into hell.
The devil leading Faustus on this merry dance is Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s servant. He accompanies the not so good Doctor on a pleasure seeking trip that lasts 24 years and eventually costs him his soul. Faustus has his fill of beautiful women, impresses emperors with his skill, wreaks glorious revenge on pompous doubters, raises icons from the dead and rides on the back of a dragon. His ultimate demise is an uncomfortably prescient parable for our generation; we may be being sold a ‘now now now’ culture, but, really, it’s all about the long game.
Dunster and his team, designer Paul Wills and the Little Angle Theatre’s Stephen Tiplady, have created a coarse but quietly impressive magic show. There’s an element of the circus side show to proceedings; we pay to watch this fool fly too close to the sun and we revel in his sticky end. Tiplady’s puppet dragons and stilt walking demons are genuinely magical; we see white headed ravens play pipes and drums and there are even small red bodies during the final rousing Elizabethan dance.
In the midst of all this, some of the darker edges of Faustus’ journey have been lost. That said, Paul Hilton handles this role with a mastery belying his thin frame, infusing his final speech with a genuine longing to have done things differently; his loss at being refused redemption every step of the way is a palpable torment. Though his Faustus is sometimes bored and insolent, he is also an easy man with which to empathise; this is a very human downfall.
Best known now as one of Matt Smith’s intergalactic sidekicks, Arthur Darvill does a solid job as Mephistopheles. His performance is not one of fire and brimstone, rather he’s the bad friend who leads you astray, an incredibly everyday devil. As he and Faustus bum around the world causing mischief, their relationship feels like one of contemporaries rather than that of master and servant – or devil and prey. The potential of friendship adds an extra dynamic to their relationship, although it does take some of the metaphysical bite out of things.
Dunster seems keener to entertain rather than frighten his audience; the physical takes the place of the spiritual fall in his production. Some of the most delightful moments come from the foolish but eminently practical Robin, delightfully played by Pearce Quigley, and it’s hard not to feel at times that all the characters are as idiotic as each other, with some only pertaining to be wiser than others. There’s never any real sense of the devil at your heels, the terror of hell and eternal damnation are never made real, but through a combination of deft stage magic and puppetry, buffoonery and song, time really does fly in what is a superbly engaging production.