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Theatre Review: Doctor Faustus

24th May 2016

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“Just sat here watching Kit Harington spitting all over the fucking stage.”

Or so said the friend who had the dubious pleasure of accompanying me to the Duke of York’s production of Doctor Faustus, which has been actively panned across the board since it hit the West End nearly two months ago.

It’s a pretty good summary, overall. Before the play even starts we’re treated to the deliberately disgusting sight of Kit Harington sitting on a single bed, letting saliva dribble out of his mouth. This goes on for about ten minutes. All over the fucking stage, indeed.

It’s a questionable opening, but it’s a fitting introduction to a production that does its best to shock and disgust at every turn, without delving deeper into any psychoses that the characters might have.

From the beginning it’s the most bizarre production I’ve ever been to. No one checks our tickets. The play starts at 7.25, like the cast can’t wait anymore and want to be out as quickly as possible. Later, there is no warning that the interval is about to end. Events resume whilst half the audience is still in the bar (probably a wise choice.)

The main pull of this production – aside from the fact that Doctor Faustus has rarely been staged in the West End – is of course Kit Harington, who is back in his role as a Jon/John (this time John Faustus), with much going on.

But we’ll get to him later, because first we need to talk about how packed to the rafters Doctor Faustus is with inexplicable directorial choices. Opening scenes that use the actors’ physicality in a genuinely terrifying way give way to Kit Harington eating crisps in his hoodie and being gifted a cookbook by Lucifer himself (who is wearing Y-fronts, obviously.)

Later, the writhing, almost naked Guernica-esque mass of the opening minutes descends into jazz hands. The nudity and pop culture references come in heavily.

The creepy central relationship, between Faustus and the not-very-demonic Mephistopheles, veers from sexual to maternal in the space of seconds – something that might very well have been deliberate, but instead just comes across like no thought has been put into what is being portrayed. At one point, Mephistopheles stimulates a handjob. I can’t see anything metaphorical in this.

Faustus and Mephistopheles

There is a lot of attention paid to wanking overall. I feel like it might be telling us that Faustus has been seduced by the devil, or at the very least by his most faithful servant. In reality though, it just comes across as a puerile attempt to shock. Five people in the audience enjoy the wanking enough to raise a titter.

The script, which starts as faithful to Marlowe’s text, loses focus by the halfway point and, apparently realising that ye olde language is far too much effort, abandons it completely in favour of references to pizza and Derren Brown.

It’s all so banal: the swearing, the vacant woman in the background who listens to headphones as devilish events unfold, the references to Hello magazine – they all mash together to create a production that’s is trying very, very hard to be something that it can’t quite define.

The pop culture references go on and on - reminding us that this production is set in these times, see?! – pushing the central message of the story further and further away from what Marlowe intended and leaving us with a whole lot of nothing to keep us entertained. We have tit tape. We have Bambi’s mum, who would throw herself into a pit of fire if she could hear her name being used in vein this way.

The humour is so obvious it isn’t even worthy of a groan. Lucifer, still in his grubby Y-fronts, pulls out a fork that could’ve come out of your mum’s kitchen drawer. Guffaw.

The variation of the language, the physical choices and the direction overall add up to create a production in which changes of pace - between iffy horror and sudden humour - are hugely jarring. The constituent parts, needless to say, do not come together. At all.

Oh yes, and there’s also a laughter track. That’s essential, because otherwise we won’t know when to cringe outwardly/slide even further down into our seats.

By the interval I am (much like Faustus) searching very hard for answers. Why is there a Hello magazine taking centre stage? Why does a laughter track exist outside a low-rent 90s sitcom? Why are they all in pyjamas?  How has Mary Berry got involved?

Harington's namesake, Christopher Marlowe - spinning in his grave - is probably asking the same questions.

Act two begins with Mephistopheles inexplicably treating us to some cruise ship karaoke. If there’s one thing that can be taken from this, it’s that it’s a good job Kylie Minogue is alive, because if she wasn’t she’d be spinning more than Marlowe himself.

It goes on. At one point, “Barack Obama” appears (in a skirt and t-shirt bearing Faustus’s face) and a middle-aged man sings him happy birthday in the style of Marilyn Monroe, providing us with a scene that is creepily reminiscent of everyone’s least favourite Money Saving Expert TV ad.

Later, effeminacy is placed in the same category as grotesque bodily humour through the use of a giant shit taking place on stage. The less said about the better.

The lowest moment, though, comes when two of the (now immortal) Faustus’s groupies grow appendages that belie their gender – and then chase each other around the stage whilst squealing. The whole scene is reductive and classless, especially in our current trans-friendly climate.

Genital humour falls flat

Maybe I’m wrong, though. If the woman next to me is to be believed, this is the most hilarious sequence of events that has graced the London stage so far this year (I’m not wrong.)

The lighting is aggressive and blinding throughout – which is probably a small mercy because it briefly distracts from the horrors that are happening on stage.

The messy attempts at meta narrative continue, with various stage announcements instructing Faustus and Mephistopheles to position themselves in various places. Increasingly desperate, the production tries to make up for the fact that it’s probably destined for regional theatres by addressing this directly ("Bognor Regis! Blackpool!"). Hella lazy.

So, is Kit Harington the right choice for Marlowe’s anti-hero? Well, it does get a bit meta when Faustus talks about his “adoring public”. My main question for Kit is how they managed to persuade him to get involved (and get his bum out for) this mess of a production in the first place. My guess is that he just wanted to have some fun, slap some flesh, do some dancing – all the things that he can’t do in Game of Thrones, and that he really, really shouldn’t be doing in Doctor Faustus either. It’s a good job he made this weird choice, though, because otherwise the auditorium would probably have been empty by 9pm.

Overall, he deals as well as he can with a terrible, mixed up script and needlessly trippy direction.

Main summation of Doctor Faustus? It feels like a fringe production, or one you’d see produced by drama school students with a mass amount of room to experiment and four years in which to make their cringeworthy, avant garde mistakes. It feels like the theatre department has run out of budget at the end of summer term. Actors deserve better than this. How it made its way to the West End stage is a mystery.

It’s a shambles for all involved. Kit’s got that other job at least, though, so we won’t worry too much about him.

Doctor Faustus is playing at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, until 25th June.


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