How much would you give up to get what you want? Doctor Faustus decided everything. Shipped off his soul to the devil with a blindfold over anything called consequence. In Marlowe’s sixteenth century blasphemy-frightened crowd it was done for knowledge. In director Jamie Lloyd’s mind we do it for fame. Giving Doctor Faustus a thorough shake-up, the pact with the devil takes place in our world of technology slaves and fame-fakers. It shows us the temptation is always there – turn to the dark side and the rewards will be unimaginable… as will the fall.

Digging its teeth into a world where the devil plays your mind, the play sets itself in a space that feels as ghostly as a Gregory Crewdson photo. Doctor Faustus is obsessed with knowledge but always hungry for more – he wants to outsmart his competitors and excel in everything, whether it be magic, success or desire. Acknowledging that human power is limited he summons the devil – and through his servant Mephistopheles conquers the world of admiration until temptation has sucked the humanity out of him.


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Jamie Lloyd’s production at the Duke of York’s Theatre sets Shakespeare’s contemporary in a modern light, with all the fierceness and cruelty that entails. It’s raw, vicious and sickening at times with no spare on blood and dark trickery. As the spirits of the underworld creep into Faustus’ life they bring all the imagery of an uncensored world – blood, extreme violence, drugs and sex all blended into impressive but challenging imagery. Polly Bennett’s movement direction is sharp, abstract and cheekily sinister, and as the play pulsates through with incredible aggressive power, it can feel like a bombardment of all the things we don’t want to see. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design has great atmospheric foreboding at times as well as ridiculous pop culture hits that evokes a strange combination of laughter and fear. Scott Penrose’s special effects are jaw dropping, and with Soutra Gilmour’s hints of afterlife in the otherwise fairly naturalistic design, the production wraps a cold, sticky and merciless cloth around its audience, showing us the true face of success and fame. It feels a bit like the smell of vomit in its graphic display of cruelty and desire, but induced with sharp humour and a clear message. A violent but highly entertaining piece of intelligent theatre.

Leaving the Queen of Dragons to fight her own wars for a bit, Kit Harington enters the world of Faustus leaving all traces of heroism behind. He drives the play with a passionate hunger for fulfilment, played with incredible intensity, though his verse seems a little too formal. As the play evolves and throws off its iambs, he takes the rear and becomes all our worst desires personified. He’s joined by a fantastic cast who are all switched on with a heightened force that adds to the play’s aggressiveness. Tom Edden shows incredible range and comic flair as the Good Angel, with Forbes Masson’s crude Lucifer a terrifying but entertaining opposite. Jade Anouka’s warm and innocent Wagner throws a bit of humanity into the mix, but it is Jenna Russell’s none but phenomenal Mephistopheles that sweeps the building off the grounds. She adds just the right sourness and humour and becomes the driving force, gripping us with an ear for sarcasm that hits all the right notes.

Colin Teevan’s version examines the impact of Faustus’ search for knowledge – and with the switch from verse to modern and back again proves that the search for fame and success doesn’t make us wiser. On the contrary. Faustus loses his intelligence on the way and becomes a product of his own desires, failing on his quest without even realising it. As an audience member, the language change jars a bit, but as an idea it supports the play brilliantly. Though the production can be a bit too graphic and overwhelming at times, it opens up Marlowe’s play to new possibilities and interpretations for a modern audience and proves why Jamie Lloyd is a director worth idolising.

 

Doctor Faustus is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25 June. For more information and tickets, see The Jamie Lloyd Company website

Photo: Marc Brenner