Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ is a play that I simply love, it is dark, Gothic and raises questions about humanity and our lust for power. Previously, I have seen Faustus in Oxford, a minimalist stage with modern technology used effectively through projections, bold lighting and music. I loved it. Mephistopheles was creepy and she stayed on stage, sitting in the audience, for the whole play. Needless to say, I was extremely excited when I heard that the Sam Wanamaker Theatre was staging Faustus this winter season.
I have been to the Sam Wanamaker theatre once before to see Othello and I was mesmerized. The classic staging alongside the use of candlelight (there is no electricity in the actual theatre) was simply stunning. At the climax of the play we sat in darkness for what felt like 5 minutes until one person entered the stage with a single candle. It was one of the most intense performances I had ever seen and I was so excited to see what they would do with Faustus. I purposely avoided all information as to how they were staging the play, actors or even the director. I simply wanted to be surprised and immersed in beauty of Marlowe.
Paulette Randall, the director, made some interesting choices that made her version unlike any I had ever seen. Firstly, Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles were played by women, adding a new dynamic to questions of desire and power. I thought Jocelyn Jee Esien did a superb job at playing Faustus, especially the fear at the end. She was powerful, emotive and alongside Pauline McLynn’s Mephistopheles they made a formidable and comic pair. The one thing that I felt Esien lacked was hubris; previous versions have played on the blind arrogance of Faustus so that his fall creates pity – a true tragic hero. However, Esien’s portrayal was more subtle and therefore Mephistopheles’ influence was somehow more insidious. This made the audience question their own morality and the ease in which we can all be ‘corrupted.’
Rather than focusing on the Gothic undertones to the play, Randall used the supporting cast to create a jovial, comic dynamic, with sarcasm lacing the performance. All of the humour resulted in the ending being all the more painful and emotive to watch. As much as I laughed and the audience were drawn in, I have to admit that I missed the darkness, the corruption and fear that previous versions have evoked within me.
The seven deadly sins was one of my favourite scenes in the whole play, the almost tribal movements, the physicality and the refusal to be limited my gender expectations made this moment in the play powerful and effective, one of the most startling I have ever witnessed. The choreography of the supporting cast was excellent throughout and at times I truly thought they were simply puppets being controlled, which is a testament to their skill.
On the whole this was an enjoyable production to watch, mostly because of the humour involved. And if you have never experienced the Sam Wanamaker Theatre then you simply must, it is a truly unique experience. Yes, I missed the torment and torture that I associate with ‘Doctor Faustus’ but for those who I went with who knew nothing about the play, they laughed and gasped, leaving the theatre having had a wonderful evening. And that is the mark of an excellent production.