‘This production contains themes of an adult nature, scenes of sexual violence, nudity, smoking, haze effects, loud music and bangs, strobe lighting.’ The warning sign about Doctor Faustus at the Duke Of York’s Theatre was possibly the longest I have seen. As far as I can think, only gun shots were missing.
All of us working in theatre know that we’ll get complaints about any of the aforementioned so we’re wise to issue warnings. Although personally I would rather go into a show knowing nothing and be surprised, as a marketing person I am conscious that many people have become more risk averse over the years and like to know what they’re letting themselves in for.
Sometimes it works the other way. I remember once an opera company that decided to use a classical painting involving a naked nymph feeling obliged to say ‘Warning: this production may not contain nudity.’ More recently a dance company known for some adventurous productions decided to tackle a children’s story and thought that such was their reputation they had better make clear- ‘this production does not contain nudity or swearing.’
As someone who helps Theatre Royal Winchester with its marketing, I’m also familiar with a particular critical comment that makes me think we could have a catchall warning sign simply saying, “Not Winchester”.
So did Doctor Faustus match up to its warning? Hell, yes. Jamie Lloyd‘s production was gory, sexual, violent, disgusting and more. I found some of the effects, especially all the blood, a bit over the top but mostly it worked.
I’ve seen it suggested in some media that the shock tactics were designed to attract millennials who are generally not keen on theatre. It wasn’t only the grand guignol, it was also a modernised version with a new middle section
Making the protagonist want to be a celebrity magician might appeal to a younger crowd, although it did seem a trivial ambition, given the price he has to pay. There was another price, the cost of a coherent plot. Then again, perhaps the young brains coped better than mine.
Most attractive of all to the young audience would be Kit Harington. Some people have suggested that he only got the lead because of his success on TV as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones. That’s as may be but he was actually good. He spoke the Elizabethan poetry well and offered a convincing portrayal of Faustus’ ego and anguish, although I have to say I wasn’t ultimately moved by it.
Kit Harington Is Damn Good
Even if it wasn’t aimed at a committed theatre goer like me, I found the production a believable, contemporary take on the Christopher Marlowe play. What I liked best was that the Devil and his disciples were so lacking in glamour or sexiness. Some had saggy bodies and all were dressed in grubby underwear. Their dancing would shame dads at a party. It made Faustus’ blindness to any consequences of his deal with the Devil even more clear.
Soutra Gilmour‘s grey set, revealing the drab backstage of the theatre, reinforced this sense of the emptiness of celebrity.
Anyone expecting to be titillated by the nudity is likely to be disappointed. Early on we see full frontal nudity but, as it suggests Adam and Eve and the original sin of the first human beings to be tempted by the Devil, it is the opposite of sexual. The only other flesh revealed in any quantity is Harington’s when Kit gets most of his kit off in the second act. He has a great body but the naked flesh reminds us of the earlier scene and suggests vulnerability rather than sexuality.
Jenna Russell damn near stole the show as Mephistopheles. She was world weary and sarcastic and exuded an inner sadness- and she’s a good singer, as people who stayed in their seats during the interval discovered.
Doctor Faustus is at Duke Of York’s Theatre until 25 June.
A version of this article has been published on the Daily Echo website.