Doctor Faustus review - April 2016

Only skin deep, to be controversial for controversial sake

Jamie Lloyd's revamped version of Doctor Faustus is a strong case of not getting what is advertised on the tin, or in this case, the poster. In fact, it's a case of not getting what you asked for and definitely not getting what you wanted.

Lloyd’s Faustus is a production that rides on controversy. Following Faustus as he trades his soul with the devil for the power of dark magic, we see many taboos; self-harm, blood, injections, abuse, nudity and rape, but it all seems to lack purpose. Of course, bringing such taboos to the forefront of theatre is always necessary and interesting – theatre provides a platform for discussion like no other. But it seems to just be there on the surface, only skin deep, to be controversial for controversial sake, rather than being particularly relevant.

We see Shakespeare updated continuously, and Christopher Marlowe's 400 year old text leaves a similar amount of room for interpretation. Colin Teevan includes updated scenes in this, which depict Faustus as a Las Vegas performing magic-man. It's all very loud and thumping and actually very confusing for someone who knows the original text. And although modernised productions are usually relevant, exciting things, referencing David Cameron for an audience reaction is less than ground-breaking.


Of course, this is all down to direction. Lloyd must have had a clear vision, because there were recurring themes throughout; the black vomit, the slicing of the arms, the angel and devil, but it just doesn't carry. Faustus' enchanting spell books are replaced by Hello magazine and Mary Berry's cookbook. Why? Is it a cultural nod to say, yes we are in the present, or is it for laughs? Occasionally, the meaning of the text is thrown out of the window, which makes the story very difficult to follow. No one was quite sure what was going on, and you could tell by the anxious titters in the audience.

Faustus is redeemed by the ensemble, who commit themselves to every movement, gyration and spin with determination, working wonderfully together. Dressed entirely in dirty underwear and launching into bizarre dance routines, the chorus were hugely reminiscent of Kneehigh's quirky ensemble. Jenna Russell single-handedly saves the production, playing Mephistopheles with an abundance of sexy and sinister charm – she completely enchants you. Kit Harington begins slowly, but gets into it as the production goes on.

Technically, the show is very strong. Although the soundscape has the unfortunate quality of telling you exactly how to feel, and when, Ben and Max Ringham have created something very eery and interesting. Similarly, Jon Clark's lighting design is excellent, casting most of the magic of the night. And for a show that is entirely about magic, it's a shame that all we see is one pyrotechnic and a lacklustre levitation. As a fan of Soutra Gilmour, the set left a lot to be desired, but using the bare bones of the Duke of York's stage is a very exciting idea, and I rather wish they had fully committed to that.

Usually, I love quirky, innovative productions, but Lloyd's Faustus falls short, with too many half-baked ideas. Adding in Alan Carr and Obama impressions is funny at first, but you have to ask... Why? And when there are fart jokes, penis jokes and outrageous sexualisation of every female, with one girl so air-headed that I thought she just might float away, I almost gave up entirely. Occasionally there were glimmers of potential, but Lloyd’s production misses the mark entirely.


Reviewed by Susannah Rose Martin.
21 April 2016, Duke of York's Theatre