Witness Faustus’ manly fortitude

I had the great pleasure yesterday afternoon of seeing the final performance of the season at Shakespeare’s Globe: their version Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, directed by Matthew Dunster and starring Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles and Paul Hilton as Faustus. My friend Kathrin and I started queuing about two and a half hours before the 4pm curtain time–and thank goodness we did! The Globe was packed full, both in the yard and in the galleries. Thanks to our absurdly early arrival, we were lucky enough to get a space leaning on the stage extension, right in the middle of the action. Perfect!

I’d heard an awful lot of hype about this production from people whose opinions I trust (Kathrin, for example, was seeing it for the second time!). Nevertheless, I was a bit nervous that I would leave disappointed that the play hadn’t lived up to its praise. That feeling disappeared, however, as the musicians took their places and began to play. The original score for the production–written by Jules Maxwell–perfectly captures the spirit of Marlowe’s text. It is at once playful and deadly serious, urgent and languishing, contemporary to both the 21st and 16th centuries.Dominated by percussion, it drives forward while leaving one desirous of going back, if only to hear the previous section one more time–a feeling that Faustus himself articulates in his final moments.

Perhaps most impressive about this production was the seamless integration of non-textual elements. Dance/movement, music, magic and puppetry all play vital roles in the Globe production, an artistic choice that could easily have obscured the text in a cloud of flashy smoke. But, somehow, Dunster has made it work. The extra-textual elements are so well integrated and so smoothly incorporated that one feels that Marlowe must have written them into the play. The overwhelming feeling is that this is how Faustus should always be done: with huge dragon puppets and books that light on fire and four (FOUR!) trapdoors and a movement-based ensemble Martha Graham would covet.

One example of the excellence of the ensemble is the scene in which Mephistopheles and Lucifer conjure up the Seven Deadly Sins for Faustus to see. Often awkward to stage and boring to watch, this scene has the potential to totally drop the energy out of the play. Not so in Dunster’s Faustus!  As each Sin emerged from the bowels of the stage, he or she added on to the movement patterns established by the Sins previous–a bit like the old improv game “Machines.” In this way, the build and drive of the scene were created in the movement as well as in the words. Nothing stayed static; rather, each Sin built upon the last. Directors are constantly asking actors to inject energy into a scene by “topping” one another, continuously increasing the energy output on lines. Here, we see that principle applied to movement as well, and a scene which could have been a trite pageant became totally compelling.

As incredible as the ensemble work was, I can’t leave out the lead characters any longer. Darvill and Hilton were a well-oiled machine of teamwork who managed to be totally in tune with each other while still working moment-to-moment throughout the play. Darvill as Mephistopheles was particularly compelling to watch in his silences, and Hilton as Faustus navigated his character’s multitudinous transitions with grace and gravity. Their text work –and the rest of the cast’s–is nearly flawless, and the words are at once spontaneous and carefully constructed. I would love to go into detail about how all this was achieved, but I honestly don’t know. I would love to have the chance to speak with Dunster about it, actually!

Darvill’s Mephistopheles was unlike any version of the demon that I have ever seen or heard of. He played the character with such a mix of ancient bitterness, dry humour, devilish sexuality and terrifying power that I found myself believing that he could have crawled from hell to steal my soul–and that he would enjoy doing it. You really got the sense that he was an ancient being with a long memory and an appetite for souls. I apparently wasn’t the only one feeling this way, as evidenced in the subtle retreat of groundlings’ hands and elbows whenever Mephistopheles stepped near the edge of the stage. He was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, attractive and repulsive. We delighted in watching him torture the friars at the Pope’s banquet but shuddered when he entered the stage without our noticing (which he did several times!). I would have thought that it was impossible in the Globe space to enter without anyone noticing (and, indeed, perhaps it is–most of the gallery probably saw him enter). It’s an easy trick, really: Faustus pulls our focus such that we don’t notice when then devil sneaks on until Faustus does. Simple, but effective.

‘Simple, but effective’ also characterized the humour in the production. The bits with Robin and Dick (who was apparently so named for the odd positioning and unusual size of his, well, you know)  were hilarious. Pearce Quigley as Robin gave a fantastically detailed and entertaining performance that served exactly the purpose his scenes are meant to: to echo Faustus’ situation in comic terms. The scene in which Robin and Dick are changed by a very pissed off Mephistopheles into a dog and an ape might have been terrifying if it wasn’t so funny. Indeed, a similar scene in which Faustus gives Benvolio a set of horns ends with Benvolio and his companions being dragged off by a bunch of really scary demons. And, of course, Faustus himself is eventually pulled into the hellmouth.

I could tell you about Dunster’s version of a hellmouth…or I could just tell you that I won’t be sleeping well for weeks. The concept of a hellmouth is a particularly tricky one anyway (Henslowe recorded that the Rose had one in storage, so it was apparently an actual piece of set or scenery), but I highly approve of Dunster’s interpretation, which used people and puppets rather than the special effects that might have tempted him. From my little groundling perspective, the emerging denizens of hell–many of whom resembled 21st century concepts of demons/ghosts/monsters/etc–were nothing short of, well, hellish. They were made even more so by Mephistopheles nonchalant exit. I couldn’t quite tell from where I was, but I suspect that he kept his eyes on Faustus’ the entire time, despite his triumphant swagger. Faustus certainly didn’t take his eyes off Mephistopheles.

The play doesn’t end, however, with Faustus’ final line (“Ah, Mephistopheles!”). Before the jig (which I’ll get to in a moment!), Lucifer, who throughout the play had had to be supported by a couple of pig-faced demons, suddenly walks to center stage of his own volition and proudly stands as his minions bring him these truly gigantic feathered wings. The music climaxes, the lights don’t fade, but everyone knows the play is over and bursts into applause. Again, it was a simple moment, but it was so effective.

And then there’s the jig. The jig is the kind of thing that can go really well or can totally ruin an otherwise great play. In this case it’s decidedly the former. This jig incorporated all the elements that made the play great, sacrificing neither comedy nor scares, and featured Faustus and Mephistopheles rocking out on their lutes. Yep: rocking out on their lutes (Maybe you had to be there).

All in all, this production of Faustus was, for me, an example of why it’s great to have the Globe around. The space was used to its fullest advantage and one had the sense of being taken back in time by a very 21st-century-conscious time machine. Incredibly detailed character and text work was layered with seamlessly incorporated extra-textual elements that brought the whole thing to a higher level of epic (yes, that is a scholarly term). The experience of watching has been described to me by more than one person as “theatrical orgasm.” I can’t say that I disagree.

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