You’ve got to admire the boldness of opening a Marlowe play on the weekend that Shakespeare’s 400th deathiversary is being celebrated. Indeed, boldness defines this tense, headstrong production that, nonetheless, sometimes loses its way. Using an updated version of the text put together for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2013, a mash-up of Marlowe and a new middle section written by Colin Teevan, Jamie Lloyd’s production bursts at the seams with joyfully adolescent flourishes – in the opening, Faustus sits in his flat in a tracksuit gobbing in front of the TV while Highway to Hell plays and later – you guessed it – Sympathy for the Devil.
The production is filled with what seems like a compendium of contemporary theatre references – there’s a healthy dose of Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed in both an eyeball-injection and sex simulated semi-naturalistically through layers of clothing, fluids aplently, including ketchup and shaving foam a la Filter, the shapewear-clad ensemble of devils recalls the witches of Carrie Cracknell’s Macbeth, while Faustus’ bloody/sexy shower of angst is a trick out of Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus book.
Soutra Gilmour’s sliding boxes set is increasingly stripped of its naturalism as the play enters the modern sections of text. It’s interesting that Lloyd and Gilmour suggest a correlation between the classical text and realism, while the new scenes take place in a demi-monde gutted out backstage space – Teevan’s new scenes, though poetic, are far more tangibly recognisable as a real world of Las Vegas magicians and super-rich hedonism than Marlowe’s formally experimental opening act. The early Marlowe section strays dangerously close to being declaimed, especially by Kit Harington as Faustus – for a bit, he’s stuck in ‘pained’, struggling to pitch beyond the ceaselessly inventive, restive ensemble. In his stead, Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles in a white nightie, emerges as the emotional heart of the piece. Russell dwells on the ex-humanity within the rebel angel, performing her seduction of Faustus’ soul with a sense of dull duty, new sparks of resistance floating to the surface. Many of the production’s more playful moments revolve around her – ringing the doorbell to be let in, the baffled duh-ness of “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it” – and truthfully I wish there had been more of these moments early on.
Fortunately, once Teevan’s scenes get going, both the production and Harington clown more freely, generally being naked a lot (you get precisely one of these: Kit Harington is more cut than Theon Greyjoy after a session with Ramsay Bolton) and frequently playing air guitar (yes, the production says, Faustus is very much that kind of prick). Teevan makes much of Marlowe’s insight that while greed for power is limitless, imagination very much isn’t – the cruellest irony of all is that Faustus can think of nothing better to do with his godlike powers than become a Derren Brown style illusionist. The best innovation of Teevan’s scenes is in positing the possibility of love as Faustus’ redemptive factor, rather than faith – and Jade Anouka gives an effervescent performance as Wagner (originally Faustus’s manservant, here his stage manager/PA), Faustus’s temptation back towards the light. She cuts through the buzz of the constantly shifting ensemble-painted pictures with blazing sincerity, and it is the moments where they quietly converse – or where Faustus and Mephistopheles throw around concepts of heaven and eternity over a bag of crisps – that are the strongest, beautifully offsetting the inventive busyness of the world stacking up around and against them.
At times Teevan’s scenes are frustratingly on the nose – in providing Faustus with motivation for his rejection of God in the form of dead parents, it robs the play of its conversation with the thirsty, child-like, id-driven want for stuff that lurks inside most of us. There’s also a flicker of something faux-lefty in its gags about David Cameron’s dad – the winning formula of the Jamie Lloyd Season is in its employment of big name stars used to sell expensive seats. Here in the Duke of York’s – the season’s first foray into the West End – in seats that usually cost upwards of £85, that felt more pronounced than ever. But it’s ultimately a production that plays to Lloyd’s strengths: visually inventive, full of punkish energy, music and spectacle, and with a stellar cast supporting Harington.
But. But but but. We have to talk about the production’s sexual politics. Disappointingly, Faustus’s Evil Angel, played by Craig Stein in a negligee, suggests the old trope that cross-dressing = sexual deviancy and the descent of the largely heterosexual-presented Faustus into damnation seems to be marked by encounters with the homoerotic. By far the most troubling moment comes with the rape and murder of Wagner-as-Helen-of-Troy. It is, literally, like something out of Game of Thrones, with Wagner stabbed before being graphically raped while Harington recites “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships”. It’s a bold move, and one that robs the protagonist of almost any chance of sympathy for his impending damnation – when it comes, fulfilling the play’s insistence that the pains of the soul are worse than the pains of the body, Faustus is left clutching at thin air, dancing by himself in eternity, trapped forever in the moment where Wagner’s murdered corpse lies on the bed.
It makes sense that Faustus’ ultimate hell might be an eternity alone, but the play still ends with a dead, raped woman on the bed, and little is made of it. Post-murder, Harington delivers Faustus’ final speech with all the straightforward pathos and pity one might expect from a production where this hasn’t happened. I thought about the (offstage) rape at the end of Violence and Son, and how much that was chillingly earned by the production, how much it made sense as the culmination of that play – or the sexual violence of Cleansed, which transfigured its characters’ suffering into a sense that we were collectively working through an agony together. Here, the sexual violence (and there are other moments as well) is jarringly unearned, coming across like the cheapest of tricks.
It’s a real shame, because up until it jumps the sexual violence shark, there is a lot to chew over: an ambitious meditation on love, sin, fame and faith, with moments of real theatrical cheek and joy. But while I relished the attitude, it comes at the cost of Marlowe’s own brand of punk. At the risk of coming over all Billington, I did miss the seam of fuck-you-ness that runs through the play, the giddy glee in Mephistopheles saying to Faustus, “Thinkest thou Heaven is such a glorious thing? I tell thee ’tis not half so fair as thou, Or any man that breathes on earth.” In the end, it feels like the play and the production are running a different race and ultimately, it doesn’t quite throw off the curse of previous Lloyd productions: while it adds up to a spectacle, it does little to illuminate the play, in some cases actively obscuring it.