A sign in the foyer of the Gate Theatre reads: “Please note that this production contains: Mild Sexual Content, Smoking, Haze & Heresy” – a warning which sets the appropriate tone for the quick-witted and hilarious play within. American playwright David Davalos’ clever new comedy is consistently entertaining, boasting a sharp script which is helped along by strong central performances, and near-perfect presentation.
The play re-imagines the lives of the eponymous German university’s three most famous graduates: father of the Reformation Martin Luther, the fictitious Doctor Faustus, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Luther and Faustus are professors at the institution, both teaching the young Danish prince, and pulling him in opposite directions. As the quite-literally constipated Luther begins to question some of the practices being preached by Rome, his physician and confidant Faustus encourages him to pin down his thoughts and take a stand, if only for the sake of his health. Luther’s beliefs clash with Faustus’ obstinate hedonism, resulting in increasingly comical conflicts between the two.
Indeed, the true joy of the production lies in the interactions between colleagues Faustus and Luther, and the play would probably be better served by concentrating solely on this dynamic. Luther’s remonstrations with the apostatised Doctor have the audience chuckling audibly throughout, and the two have a chemistry which enables them to debate heavy theological topics in an amusing and captivating manner. The intricate portrayals of the duo add much to the play’s idiosyncratic texture: Faustus’ world-weariness is accompanied by a propensity to prescribe experimental narcotics for all ailments, and Luther’s nervous devotion is paired with a penchant for knocking a few back down at the local inn, his justification being that alcohol is mentioned in 72 of the Bible’s 73 books.
If there are any significant longueurs in the play, they occur in the sections in which Hamlet takes centre-stage, particularly in the scenes in which he recounts his recurring hallucinations. The addition of the re-imagined Shakespearean protagonist to the plot seems unnecessary at times, and often serves little more purpose than to deliver some theatrical in-jokes based upon the original text. Nonetheless, Edward Franklin’s spirited performance as the vacillating prince provides physical, if not always verbal, humour, especially in a skilfully orchestrated tennis-match sequence.
Sean Campion as Faustus is charismatic enough to carry a show of his own, and moves between entertaining the audience with bouts of drunken karaoke to pondering the nature of human existence with great panache. He is ably accompanied by an energetic Andrew Frame as Luther, who manages to express the frustrations of the rebel monk in a manner which provokes laughter and sympathy in equal measure. Oliver Townsend’s inventive set is responsible for much of the play’s potency, cleverly manipulating the relatively small stage to accommodate several disparate scenarios.
Much of the humour is unabashedly literary, and the play wears its intellectual credentials on its sleeve. The script is peppered with jokes which require an educated audience to succeed, including quips about the Copernican principle and witticisms on Lutheranism. Yet it is pleasing to watch a performance which refuses to condescend to its audience, in direct contrast to popular works such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, conspicuously placed on one of the bookshelves on the set.
To its detriment, the production has been marketed as a “battle of reason versus faith”, and those attending in hope of an in-depth exploration of theological and philosophical paradoxes will be disappointed. However the play’s strength lies in its ability to mock the routine disputes in these fields, and offers a refreshingly irreverent perspective on subjects which are all too often treated with kid gloves. As an evening of pure entertainment it is a remarkable success, and it would come as no surprise if this imaginative work was to become a firm fixture in the modern theatrical repertoire.
Wittenberg is playing at the Gate Theatre until 1st October. For more information and to book tickets, see the Gate Theatre website.