First performed in 1592, Dr Faustus was written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe. It tells the tale of a German physician who sells their soul to the devil: in exchange for twenty-four years of omnipotence, Faustus must face an eternity in Hell.
Directed by Paulette Randall, in many ways this is a quintessentially traditional production that will satisfy even the most puritanical fans of Elizabethan theatre. The stage is merely lit by candlelight and sound is live featuring a range of instruments creating haunting sound effects and an excellent original score. The set is largely simple, containing necromantic books, satanic symbols and golden mirrors: the overall atmosphere onstage is chilling as well as being totally authentic to the play’s original period.
However traditional this production is in its design elements, the use of a black woman playing our protagonist instantly adds another dimension to Marlowe’s classic. In an onstage world where all figures of authority are white men, ranging from the Pope to the monarchy, the casting of Jocelyn Jee Esien as Faustus is intriguing. On initially reading the text, Faustus’s longing for recognition of achievement and praise of excellence seems entirely egotistical; when played by Esien, Faustus’s behaviour has an added political poignancy. The spectator sees Faustus as battling against the limitations placed upon her by a patriarchal Caucasian society, rather than purely motivated by narcissistic greed.
The political undertones and elements of Satanism in the production are balanced perfectly with well-timed moments of comedy. Light and shade are blended together: we see the Catholic Church satirised for its hypocrisy in a scene as comedic as it is compelling. The production is well and truly stolen by John Leader and Louis Maskell who capture the hapless double-act Robin and Dick with wit and flair. It takes skilled acting and direction to make a text that is over four hundred years old funny for a current audience. However, I would confidently watch a spin off of Dr Faustus solely featuring the trials and tribulations of Robin and Dick. Under Randall’s direction the pair interweave slapstick elements and dated puns with nuanced skill: throughout the audience are frequently in stitches.
This is a truly exciting interpretation of a classic: Randall has subtly placed a new take on Marlowe’s text making it accessible and thought-provokingly fresh. Running at two and a half hours, it admittedly could be trimmed further and yet there are no moments that stand out as particularly dry or unnecessary. Throughout, the performance is as droll as it is dark, as sardonic as it is sinister. Encompassing simple and precise design with accomplished acting, this is a production not to be missed. For any audience member wanting to be entertained, challenged and startled in equal measures, Dr Faustus comes thoroughly recommended.
Dr Faustus runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre until 2 February 2019.
Image © Marc Brenner