Doctor Faustus – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Barney Bardsley, February 2013
Although I am a devoted revolutionary in terms of theatre, with a love of experiment and daring, there is more than a touch of Robespierre in my make up. I believe in the purity of the text. And can feel my fingers itch for the guillotine when this is scorned.
So I have a certain heaviness of heart when I read the programme notes for this show. A joint production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Glasgow Citizens. I see that Marlowe’s original playscript has modern additions. They are designed to augment this disturbing and iconic piece of Elizabethan drama. Make it more accessible to a contemporary audience. Tamper with Christopher Marlowe? Didn’t this flamboyant wild child – contemporary of Shakespeare, gay adventurer, frequenter of murky taverns, spy and informant, cut down at twenty-nine in an unseemly brawl, with a knife between his ribs – do enough to tamper with his own reputation?
My only consolation was the sterling name of Glasgow Citizens. A shining light in Scottish (and British) theatre for nearly seventy years. Surely they wouldn’t mess it up? The answer is: no, they don’t. Director Dominic Hill’s deliberately messy and seedy reading of the text, which is set, for the most part, in a down-at-heel backstage dressing room, where Faustus prowls, champagne bottle in hand, inhabiting his role as magician showman with all the queasy unctiousness of a Ricky Gervais look alike, drowning in a tight spangly suit and an ocean of brilliantine and booze, is both disturbing and brilliant.
“Written in blood”
Most of us know the story of Dr Faustus. He sells his soul to the devil in return for all manner of earthly delights and debauchery. Only to see them all, literally and metaphorically, turn round and bite him on the bum. Sending him, mewling and puking, to endless perdition and self torment. It is strong meat this play. Part morality tale, part titillation. And Dominic Hill doesn’t shrink from the latter, in order to drive home the message in lurid, eyeball splitting technicolour. Be careful what you wish for. Beware the easy contract with the small print, written in blood at the bottom of the page. Because the blood is yours. And it will certainly spill, one way or another.
The strength of this new production lies in its humour and subtle twists and turns. Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre can, in contemporary readings, be so deep awash in blood and howling that the audience revolts and switches off completely. Here, we are drawn right inside Faustus’s shifty, sleazy world. This is due mainly to Kevin Trainor’s masterly interpretation of the role. He is so ordinary, so foolish, so easily beguiled, that we end up almost rooting for him. Wishing he could get away with it. Then the sudden glitter in his eyes, to match the sequins on his jacket, when he finds fame and fortune as a magician on the Las Vegas show circuit. It reminds us that he is rotten to the core. Like so many of our X Factor celebrity aspirations – and should be dropped from a great height and left to wallow in his own filth.
“Mouthing his cruelties”
In many versions of the play, it is the devil’s henchman Mephistopheles who steals the limelight and draws our focus inexorably in. Here, Dr Faustus himself completely steals the show. In an interesting cross-dressing casting, Siobhan Redmond plays Mephistopheles. She interprets him as a humourless, bitter vixen, mouthing her cruelties in a weird cyborg monotone.
But she doesn’t quite pull it off. Her evil is not quite icy enough. Her fury lacks the necessary inflammation. Even so, held together by a strong and gutsy ensemble, and an audacious, utterly modern staging, this ‘Dr Faustus’ is completely convincing. And ultimately, beneath all the laughs, the sexual shocks, the bawdy allusions, it chills us to the bone. As indeed it should.
All images: Keith Pattison