Theatre Review – 'Doctor Faustus'

Posted on: 30 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

On the highway to hell with Christopher Marlowe's tragedy

I am the god of Hellfire, and I bring you... FIRE! Doo-Doo! I'll take you to burn...

What is Christopher Marlowe's play, Doctor Faustus, really about? A hubristic scholar who damns himself? A disenchanted intellectual who ends up slumming it as a glorified stage magician but who is taken at face value by peasants? A metaphorical clash between the Christian medieval mindset and the humanist renaissance outlook, with a dash of yearning for an older pagan past?

Or is it the doubts and fears of an atheist playwright, wondering if death ends in oblivion or hell? A man and his 'devil', who is in fact simply his repressed urges and thoughts and rage? A veiled dig at the English church and aristocrats who were taken in by mystics such as John Dee? Or a comedy masquerading as a tragedy?

Perhaps all of them. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe never went for trite, easy endings, but left us doubting and questioning. No wonder he is less popular, but perhaps the better writer.

To its credit, Matthew Dunster's production of the play at the Globe Theatre lets it be all those things, as well as a beautifully put together spectacle with sumptious costumes and puppets representing all the nasty squiggly things in the 'house of torture' that awaits the main character.

Leading man Paul Hilton does a great job of capturing Faustus as both doomed fool and insightful malcontent, while Mephistopheles his demon, or perhaps alter ego, is played with subdued complexity, pathos and barely repressed rage by Arthur Darvill.

Threatening their dominance is a gloriously stupid yet oddly wise peasant and comic relief played to perfection by Pearce Quigley, though the rest of the (very busy) cast deserves mention, especially the Seven Deadly Sins who tear up the stage when they're not writhing, farting or fornicating on it.

Granted, the play suffers at times from being more a collection of fragmented scenes than a unified narrative but this is more than covered up by a sturdy production, the subtleties of the play's meaning and a strong vein of black humour (where else does a man getting dragged to hell get followed by a grimly amusing musical number complete with double mandolin solos?).

It works best as a collection of raw thoughts and emotions at war with each other, signifying both great turmoil and a certain bleak resignation.

Doctor Faustus will play at The Globe, London, until 2 October. Tickets available HERE

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Alexander Hay

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