fri 12/04/2024

Doctor Faustus, Sam Wanamaker Theatre review - female Faustus reaps rich rewards | reviews, news & interviews

Doctor Faustus, Sam Wanamaker Theatre review - female Faustus reaps rich rewards

Doctor Faustus, Sam Wanamaker Theatre review - female Faustus reaps rich rewards

A deceptive lightness of tone brings new resonance to the text

Building on the history of women and forbidden knowledge: Jocelyn Jee Esien as Doctor FaustusPhoto: Marc Brenner

What do you gain by casting Dr Faustus and Mephistopheles as women? In the programme for this often illuminating production, director Pauline Randall declares, “There’s always a rather intimidating, institutional question of ‘why’ when it comes to these decisions, and especially when it comes to handling a classical text.

Sometimes the right refute is 'why not?', and we’re choosing to respond to that more productive challenge.”

Yet it doesn’t take long, when sitting in the candlelit intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker theatre, to work out how utterly apt it is to make a character who seeks forbidden knowledge female. There is, after all, a deeply ingrained tradition – both social and mythological – of damning women who do this, whether it’s Eve and her apple, Pandora and that box, or centuries of women burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

Not only are there are rich foundations on which to build this exercise, but it also brings a shocking freshness to some of the textual detail. When Jocelyn Jee Esien’s charismatic Faustus (Main picture) declares of Aristotle’s Analytics that “thou hast ravished me”, while it doesn’t quite rope an Ancient Greek philosopher into the #metoo movement (now wouldn’t that be news?), it adds to the frisson of knowledge’s potential dangers. Similarly, when Faustus transforms a knight at Emperor Charles V’s court into Actaeon (the mythological character immortalised by Marlowe’s close contemporary, Titian) we are reminded forcefully that it was originally the goddess Diana who turned Actaeon to a deer for his forbidden discovery.

Pauline McLynn is a sphinx-cool Mephistopheles Photo: Marc BrennerHowever, while the production’s concept quickly reaps rewards, what’s more counterintuitive is the initial lightness of tone that predominates as Esien’s Faustus walks onto the stage in a gorgeous green robe and declares her necromantic ambitions. The opening production of Macbeth in this wonderful season of Ambitious Fiends – exploring power and corruption – drew considerable power from darkness and shadow. Here the beautiful vivid costumes and the tum-tee-tum cheer of the tonal music (albeit wonderfully performed) at first seem to clash with the play’s infernal preoccupations. 

Any doubts, though, begin to be allayed with the appearance of Pauline McLynn’s sardonic, sphinx-cool Mephistopheles (Pictured above). It’s a fantastic coup de theatre when Faustus succeeds in conjuring her up – the wooden walls of the Wanamaker are battered percussively from the outside, while the floor of the book-laden stage caves in. From the moment McLynn declares in acid-tipped tones “Now Faustus, what would thou have me do?”, we realise that this central relationship between the scholar and her diabolical guide will be marked by a searing humour missing from more conventional productions.

One of the many beauties of the Wanamaker theatre is how clearly text resonates here, and as their spiky double-act progresses, it’s striking how much Marlowe’s vision of infernal knowledge deals with what still preoccupies us in 21st century society. When she asks for a book “where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens,” it is difficult not to think of the Nasa Insight probe’s recent landing on Mars. The laugh when she asks Mephistopheles to “Tell me the secrets of foreign kings,” also demonstrates how apt Marlowe’s musings are for an age in which the political narrative is dominated by hackings and buggings.

Randall has brought a wide range of influences to her interpretation, and one of the most visually striking is the infamous Seven Deadly Sins parade, reinterpreted through the director’s experience of a Candomblé ceremony in Brazil. Candomblé was a religion first brought by enslaved Africans to South America in the 16th century, which believes that each practitioner has their own tutelary deity who ‘possesses’ them in rituals. The brightly coloured progression of the Seven Deadly Sins wakes us up more fully to a vibrant culture that clashes joyfully with the British tradition of presenting evil spirits in monochrome. Here we appreciate that it is not just gender realignment, but a vivid internationalism that reinvents this text – the more the production progresses, the more we see how the profound the apparent levity is.

Aside from the snarling wit of the central performers, there are some delightful diversions, not least in Louis Maskell’s scene-stealing turn as Benvolio at the court of Emperor Charles V. Sarah Amankwah is also a charismatic witty presence, not least as a freaked-out monk during an exorcism procession.

While it takes a while, then, to exert its powers, the sum total of this evening is that it is an infernal box of delights. Marlowe’s classic is revealed as a text of joy and infinite potential – something, surely, for which any playwright would sell their soul.


Doubts are allayed with the appearance of Pauline McLynn’s sardonic, sphinx-cool Mephistopheles


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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