Doctor Faustus – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Director: Paulette Randall
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Now that Emma Rice’s electric lights have faded away like a neon fever dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the venue’s latest production ofDoctor Faustusreturns to the candlelight staging within the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse that is, perhaps, far more appropriate for Marlowe’s tale of witchcraft and devilry.

Amongst the heritage staging, though, director Paulette Randall continues the innovations in casting that have marked the first year of Rice’s successor, Michelle Terry. Jocelyn Jee Esien is better known as a comedian, so her casting here as the knowledge-devouring Faustus is far more jarring in that regard than the flip of her character’s gender.

And it is in the play’s opening passages where one first suspects that Esien may be struggling. Alone among Libby Watson’s stage design, books upon books piled everywhere, Faustus’ soliloquies on the nature of learning are delivered drily and as if by rote, an absence of connection to the words that would render them believable.

Once or twice, Esien directs her monologue to the audience, bringing them into her confidence, and one can almost see the light go in in Esien’s head – but such moments are all too rare.

What Esien desperately needs is a foil, and she gets this in spades with Pauline McLynn’s Mephistopheles. McLynn is also, of course, well known for her comedy roles, but she has that steeliness just below the surface that is perfect for this character. The deal that she brokers between Faustus and her boss, Lucifer – twenty four years of a charmed life on Earth in the hope of acquiring knowledge, after which her soul will belong to the Devil – is a source of wry bemusement/. Although Mephistopheles is in theory a servant to Faustus for the duration of the compact, McLynn leaves no doubt as to who is really in control.

The biggest problem withDoctor Faustusis that for all the power the titular character gains, she achieves remarkably little with it. While the pursuit of knowledge may have been the driver for her deal in the first place, Faustus’s life is dominated by parlour trickery and conjuring. Still, that allows for some good old-fashioned buffoonery from the supporting cast, most especially between John Leader’s Robin and Louis Maskell’s Dick. And as Faustus abandons thoughts of learning and uses her new magic abilities for hew own amusement, Esien also begins to blossom.

Some dramatically stunning choreography by performance artist Paradigmz injects further life into proceedings. Lucifer’s parade of the Seven Deadly Sins is characterised as a series of dances inspired by African tribal rituals, but the triumph of the choreography comes as Faustus dispatches her critics.

And as Faustus’s deal begins to run out, Esien almost makes us feel sympathy for a character with few redeeming qualities. One is left, though, with a sense that Faustus promised to do much with the gift she was given, and ended up squandering that gift. And as for Faustus, so too forDoctor Faustus– this production focusses on fun rather than knowledge, and never quite deserves redemption.

Continues until 2 February 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner

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A squandered gift

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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