This was originally published on thePDQ in May 2016.
“I don’t even watch Game of Thrones, I’m here to see a classic text transformed for a modern generation” was my mantra as I took my seat at the Duke of York’s Theatre to watch The Jamie Lloyd Company’s interpretation of Dr. Faustus, starring Kit Harrington and Jenna Russell. It was always clear that the show would do well in terms of ticket taking’s due to its star vehicle in Harrington, but was the production itself worth all of the hype under the name of one man?
I know Faustus pretty well, having studied it at A-Level Drama, so was looking forward to this modern update. Having the portal of Faustus’ downfall be his hunger for celebrity status was only too fitting for this generation obsessed with social media fame, and there were plenty of contemporary references, such as the presence of Obama, a jibe about Cameron, and Mary Berry’s cookbook being the book which Faustus summons Lucifer from. I did laugh, but I also felt the cringe. It was almost trying too hard to be current, and that automatically makes me switch off. I think what did it for me was Russell, as Mephistopheles, doing post-interval karaoke of songs related to Hell, such as “Better the Devil You Know” and “Bat out of Hell”. Though Russell does have an extraordinary voice, the entire act felt cheesy and cliché, just another thing to cross of the list to try and keep things “current”.
It must be said, however, that the design of the production was of an extremely high quality. The rotating sets which also showed the off-stage parts of them worked well to show that behind the façade of Faustus’ magic show he really has nothing was a bold choice, and seeing one of the company members slowly inch their way across the roof of the staging was mesmerising to watch – the poise was incredible. Gore, of course, featured heavily, with an array of vomit, faeces, and blood created to repulse the audience in all its disgusting glory. Despite the audience being sickened, I actually enjoyed these parts (‘the extreme always seems to make an impression’), as well as the opening of Faustus’ monologue being accompanied by several nude bodies; spirits ready to seize his soul at any moment. The juxtaposition of Faustus’ innocent dreams of success and the very real world of sexual exploitation and gore happening behind him summed up the journey the show would take over the following hours.
On the other hand, I felt that Faustus had almost no personality before his pact with Lucifer, I found it difficult to feel sorry for him when at the climax of the play he lost everything. I’m not sure if this was due to Harrington’s performance, already knowing the play, or just not being a Game of Thrones fangirl.
Along with the gore, the show was naturally fuelled by sex and bodies, a legitimate choice considering all of the sin and damnation in the play. A shower emanating blood covered Harrington in the latter part of act two (yes, girls, I did see almost-all of Jon Snow naked, but please don’t objectify), though was this to please the girls and women absolutely sweating with excitement in their seats? A new sub-plot was created in which Wagner became Faustus’ female housemate (and predictably) eventual lover. I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like it, perhaps because I was clinging too much onto the original text. It made sense though, as this relationship enabled Faustus to see what he has missed out on by selling his soul to Lucifer. I was incredibly uncomfortable with the final scene in which a rape occurred, it was the most uncomfortable and horrible thing to watch. Was this really necessary?
Though I clearly had a lot of issues with the production and interpretation of the play, I can not fault the actors. The ensemble worked so well together, often in unison and helping to provide the eerie feel that something was always waiting in the wings ready to pounce. Harrington did a great job as Faustus, and his delivery, pace, and choreography of the final speech was captivating. Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles was the star of the show for me. Searching, open, and yet also threatening, she carried the role with grace and made sure to always be visible and remembered by the audience.