Missed The Boat: Doctor Faustus (2011)

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Doctor Faustus
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

That’s right – now that there are no theatres open, I have time to properly consider the things I’ve missed and catch up on them. So #MissedTheBoat is back! It felt only right to follow on from #ShakespeareSunday with #MarloweMonday, so I dug out my DVD of the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Doctor Faustus from 2011. Starring Paul Hilton as Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles, this production was directed by the brilliant Matthew Dunster and has been sitting patiently in my room, waiting for me to watch it, for years now. I hadn’t quite started my theatregoing when this production was mounted, so there was no chance of me actually getting over to the Globe to go and see it; as that was the height of the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who I can only imagine my motivation at the time was to see Darvill (known only to me at that point as Rory) in a very different role.

Since buying it I really haven’t had a good time to sit down and concentrate on it, really. You can have it on in the background, but what’s the point in that? Not long after its release I had tentatively started going to see things at actual theatres, and once I moved to London it was in my head that I should see a stage production before watching it – I saw Jamie Lloyd’s brash & semi-adapted production in 2016, the RSC’s godawful effort later that year, before a more palatable version in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2018. Three very different productions live onstage, so the path was finally cleared to watch the Globe’s fairly traditional-looking take.

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Doctor Faustus in rehearsal
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

The basic premise must be familiar to pretty much everyone reading this: John Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer in the pursuit of power and knowledge, taking Mephistopheles as his unquestioning servant for 24 years before being taken to Hell. The play is based on the German legend of Faust, and it is believed Marlowe drew inspiration quite faithfully from the 1592 translation of the Faust Book, changing or inserting a few details. There are some very well-known quotes (I’m going back to Shakespeare in Love, with “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”), though I think where I have struggled with this play is its wordiness. It sounds odd to say about a play, in some ways, but there are whole chunks where I do find myself wondering what exactly is going on – mostly in the second ‘half’, which (unusually) is slightly longer than the first.

Ultimately, having now scrutinised this play in several different forms and set in different periods of history, I believe it is one that works best in a more traditional setting. The themes it covers will always be relevant, as humanity is flawed & endlessly curious, but that doesn’t mean it has to be adapted and set in the present day (I would love to see a version that manages to do it well, however – or maybe the 20th century). I definitely felt that I got to grips with it better in this version, and not simply because I’ve now been exposed to it on multiple occasions – winter 2018 was a long time ago!

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Doctor Faustus
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

This production was definitely an example of the Globe at its best; the stage projecting out into the yard (so more good viewing vantage points), as much audience interaction as they could get away with (including a lot of spraying, which made me very grateful not to be a groundling), plus great use of music in the background and also to help accentuate some of the more physical moments of the play (particularly involving the Good and Bad Angels). Movement was also quite key, notably in the clashes between the Angels and also during the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, where things start to become a little more gymnastic & even acrobatic. The costumes were wonderful (designed by Paul Wills) – early on the black & red theme for the devils and the hellbound worked very well, with Faustus donning a red cap to match that of Mephistopheles once his contract is signed. As Faustus becomes more materially successful and starts to enjoy himself more, the outfits get more luxuriant.

Pearce Quigley is great comedy value, as he always is, with his dry delivery working perfectly as Robin conjures Mephistopheles and ends up with the head of a god. Arthur Darvill cuts an imperious presence and is single-minded in Mephistopheles’ quest to keep Faustus on the path to Hell – though you can’t help wondering if he thinks some of this is below him… Doctor Faustus isn’t simply a cautionary tale; Faustus wasted the opportunity he was given and thus failed, after making the choice with understandable motivations (to learn more and make a better world for himself), succumbing to temptations and not readily grasping the consequences of his contract. You can clearly see the wavering and doubt at key moments in Paul Hilton’s performance, demonstrating the complexity of human nature and the grey areas the play hints at.

For a focused, entertaining, and dramatic production of possibly Marlowe’s most famous work, look no further. And be sure to keep watching until the very end, as the jig is also quite something…

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Doctor Faustus is available to buy on DVD or through the Globe Player.

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