On one level, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is all high-stakes drama. Famously, Faustus opts for eternal damnation in exchange for 24 years of Mephistopheles’ unwavering service, only realising the uneven terms of the deal in the final hours of life. But these dramatic moments of reckoning bookend Marlowe’s most famous play, leaving its middle inflated with mischievous conjuring and enjoyably sinful pageantry.
So instead of focusing on the dramatic import of Faustus’s actions, director Paulette Randall instead cleverly accentuates the unruly and irreverent attitudes of the Doctor and Mephistopheles. By casting both Faustus and Mephistopheles as women who play tricks on men in positions of power (like the Pope), Randall adds a rebellious quality to their expeditions which can otherwise seem inconsequential and needless buffoonery. That attitude of defiance is refreshingly used even as an approach to the text: when asked ‘why cast women in the central roles?’, Randall responds with a ‘why not?’.
Presiding over a parade of the seven deadly sins and conjurings of Helen of Troy and Alexander the Great, Jocelyn Jee Esien and Pauline McLynn exhibit great chemistry. They work like a comedy duo as they boast about their extensive travels, and together they exhume and reveal surprising humour and mirth in Marlowe’s macabre play.
They are supported by a delightful ensemble, with strong performances by Sarah Amankwah, Louis Maskell and John Leader. Maskell’s hungover Benvolio is particularly riveting. With an often sparse stage, the ensemble do a remarkable job of depicting the more magical moments through movement and dance.
But in the initial scenes of the play, Esien’s Faustus seems underpowered, lacking that fervent and blinding desire which compels her to summon Mephistopheles. She has sporadic interjections of doubt, spurred on by advice from the Good Angel and Bad Angel that loom from the gallery above her. But these feel half-hearted and lag, and are only reinvigorated once Mephistopheles reappears. Similarly, Faustus’s climactic scene when she realises what awaits her doomed soul comes too swiftly after the moments where she’s been gleefully reveling in sorcery, diminishing the emotional impact of her repentance and regret.
This absence seems even more emphasised in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with its candle-lit and intimate atmosphere. Ellen McDougall’s recent Othello in the same space intelligently employed the flicker of flames to evoke doubt and deceit. But here the lighting is relatively stagnant, with the hanging candelabras being lit only once and never fully extinguished. Given the shadowy aspects of Marlowe’s text, this seems a missed opportunity.
Like Faustus, Randall makes a sacrifice. She chooses to highlight Marlowe’s feverish comedy, but it comes at the expense of the work’s dramatic impact. And while Randall brilliantly foregrounds a devilish deviance that makes for a unique production of Doctor Faustus, frustratingly, Randall’s vision parallels Faustus’s fate: one thing is lost as another is gained.
Doctor Faustus is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 2nd February 2019. More info here.