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.