During the fifty years from its writing to the closure of the theatres in 1642, there was no play more popular than Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. No Shakespeare play could compete with it. No play of the period was more often revived, or proved more consistent box office. This season’s spectacular production of Doctor Faustus at The Globe helps you understand why. Spectacular, you ask? Have I not seen the mixed reviews? Indeed I have, and I was prepared to be disappointed. I can only conclude that the authors of one or two sniffy reviews in the broadsheets got the posh seats (too distant from the action) and were expecting this tragicomic confection to come out a shade darker.
Marlowe, deeply scholarly and fascinated by questions of theology, nevertheless understood theatre like no other dramatist of his era, and in Doctor Faustus, fused depth and spectacle into the most profound theatrical magic. The magic of this production – in a play centred on the pursuit of magic – is most magnificently experienced as a groundling, where misdirection combined with a more limited perspective means the ample use of trapdoors is easily missed. We are as shocked as Faustus to find Mephistopheles calmly standing at the front of a stage that was previously empty.
The stage is rarely empty; this production is a fine ensemble piece, and whereas the text opens with Faustus alone in his study, director Matthew Dunston fills it with devilish dark-goggled scholars, choreographed bearers of the classical tomes that Faustus consults and rejects. From this opening onwards, the play foregrounds the considerable comedy available in this play to both director and actors. It is often said – quite wrongly – that Marlowe couldn’t write comedy; indeed this is one of the common arguments against his authorship of the Shakespeare plays. But this misapprehension may stem largely from the fact that we meet Marlowe mostly on the page, and through the mist of the Marlowe myth: a troubled, intense, perhaps violent youth. Marlowe’s plays, when staged are invariably much funnier – wittier – than the text makes apparent. Neither is the comedy contained only within the clown scenes as some scholars imagine (and some of them so convinced of Marlowe’s inability to write comedy that they assume the comic scenes in Faustus were inserted by some other writer, usually Nashe). This production ensures the wit of Marlowe’s pen is apparent from the outset.
Paul Hilton is an engaging and likeable Faustus whose energy, hunger for knowledge, and sense of fun run are exhausted over the twenty-four years from contract to soul delivery. But it is the patient, comradely evil of Arthur Darvill’s Mephistopheles that truly captivates. Felix Scott makes a meaty role of Wagner who, doubling as the chorus, tops, tails, and guides us through this reinvented morality play. Pearce Quigley is a superb Robin. And tell me his Robin isn’t utterly Shakespearean. But as I said before, this was truly an ensemble piece; every member of the cast a significant contributor to the pleasurable whole. Never have Marlowe’s words been more vividly alive than in the staging of the Seven Sins; the essence of each sin so magnificently and grotesquely embodied that it proves contagious. And the scene much funnier, of course, than it reads from the page.
I’ve seen more than half a dozen Shakespeare plays at The Globe in the last few years – all excellent – but have not experienced one so start-to-finish entertaining, so captivating, as their Doctor Faustus. I attended this time with an experienced theatre practitioner (director/actor) who was blown away by it too, so I feel reassured this is not merely a symptom of my Marlowe obsession. Needless to say I shall be going again, dragging friends if possible.
No question: forget those sniffy reviews and give yourself a treat. if you haven’t seen it, do so before it ends on October 2nd. In fact go now, before the September chill sets in. Go with a friend. Go as a groundling; it’s a fiver, and you’ll be in the thick of the magic. Pray it doesn’t rain, but take a mackintosh. And make sure you avoid the horse courser’s socks.