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Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus – review round-up

Megan Vaughan
Megan Vaughan is an arts blogger from Cheshire, now based in London. She has worked in theatre administration in both the commercial and subsidised sectors since 2006.
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With his company in residence at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd has been enticing young audiences to his shows with a successful formula: updated classic text, plus cool Generation Netflix telly stars, multiplied by designer Soutra Gilmour’s music video aesthetics. Add in a cheap ticket scheme (£15 Mondays), and you have an admirable audience development strategy.

For Doctor Faustus, he moves his model into the much larger Duke of York’s Theatre, where Colin Teevan’s 2013 update of Marlowe’s text sees the protagonist make his pact with the devil in order to become a modern day celebrity magician. The telly star of choice is Kit Harington from Game of Thrones; the press night of this production was cannily timed to coincide with its latest season premier.

Alongside Lloyd and regular collaborator Gilmore, Polly Bennett is movement director, Ben and Max Ringham look after sound and music, and Scott Penrose creates special effects. Joining Harington onstage are Jenna Russell, Jade Anouka and Tom Edden. Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

Doctor Faustus – Off-with-your-Kit Harington

EMBARGOED until 26 04 16 Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus. Running at the Duke of York's Theatre London until 25 June 2016  CREDIT Marc Brenner (2)Kit Harington’s central turn disappoints some critics and impresses others. While Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph, ★★) thinks he remains “stubbornly earthbound”, Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter) praises his “confident, charismatic performance”. While Michael Billington (The Guardian, ★★) finds in him “a sense of Faustus’s flailing despair”, noting that he’d like to see the actor take on more classical roles, Holly Williams (WhatsOnStage, ★★) says, quite simply, that he “cannot carry this play”.

There is agreement, however, on Harington’s more physical capabilities. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★) says it’s his “Michaelangelo physique that steals the show”, and Jessie Thompson (Huffington Post) reckons he’s “got great hair, it’s a bit like Charles II if her had been around when topknots were a thing”. Marianka Swain (Arts Desk, ★★) gives a wry aside in her review – “apparently there are no clothes in the afterlife” – but other reviewers are clearly having fun; Michael Billington was “tempted to dub him ‘off-with-your-kit Harington’.”

Doctor Faustus – Marloverkill

Jamie Lloyd’s production is characteristically visual and packed with gory effects, but reviewers don’t always agree on their success. Dom O’Hanlon (London Theatre, ★★★) refers to the show’s “heavy white noise”; for Dominic Cavendish it becomes “completely incomprehensible”; while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, 2 stars) diagnoses “a case of less Marlowe and more Marloverkill”.

Rafaella Marcus (Exeunt) and Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) focus on artistic reference points. Marcus finds “a healthy dose of Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed” and “the witches of Carrie Cracknell’s Macbeth”, whereas Tripney sees images from film and visual art: “He’s a master of composition, his tableaux referencing everything from Hieronymus Bosch to Brian de Palma, with a few by now obligatory nods to Japanese horror, while Soutra Gilmour’s murky design presents us not just with hell’s kitchen but hell’s khazi too.”

For Matt Trueman (Variety) though, these stylistic flourishes are left wanting: “too often visceral acts are reduced to empty images. At one point, Harington wolfs down an entire pizza — an act that should turn our stomachs — but rather than give space to his struggle, Lloyd lets the moment get lost in a melee. That’s a lot of calories for too little effect.”

Doctor Faustus – Bat Out Of Russ-ell

EMBARGOED until 26 04 16 Jenna Russell and Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus. Running at the Duke of York's Theatre London until 25 June 2016  CREDIT Marc BrennerJenna Russell as Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is “marvellously understated”, according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★). For Danny Coleman-Cooke (British Theatre, ★★), she was “way more powerful than a lot of the carnage developing around her”, and Dom O’Hanlon says her interval karaoke was “worthy of its own full production”. Holly Williams sees the other side of that coin though: “A fine actor, she seems at sea in this rudderless show".

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) also agrees that Russell is the show’s stand-out performer, her Mephistopheles “sullen, sarcastic and terrifying”: “I could offer a theory as to what aspect of Faustus’s subconscious she’s supposed to represent. Or I could just note that she’s great, she gets to sing Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’, and that she’s integral to the peculiar je ne sais quoi of a production that rewires an Elizabethan morality play into a wild twenty-first-century fever dream.”

Doctor Faustus – So is it any good?

EMBARGOED until 26 04 16 (l - r) Forbes Masson, Kit Harington and Jenna Russell in Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York's Theatre London CREDIT Marc BrennerIt appears not. This time, sadly, the 2 star reviews significantly outnumber the 4s, and some of the criticisms are particularly worrying. Rafaella Marcus, for example, makes an important and troubling argument about the show’s sexual politics: “Faustus’s Evil Angel, played by Craig Stein in a negligee, suggests the old trope that cross-dressing = sexual deviancy and the descent of the largely heterosexual-presented Faustus into damnation seems to be marked by encounters with the homoerotic.”

Other writers note an inherent hypocrisy at the heart of this production, with Leslie Felperin, Holly Williams and Marianka Swain all questioning how a show so critical of celebrity culture can get away with putting a hot young TV star on stage for two hours in little but his pants.

While there is some respect for the ambition of the Jamie Lloyd Company – both in the scale of their endeavour here, and in their wish to develop a younger audience for the work – it seems most critics feel that this Doctor Faustus is just a bit too messy. Matt Trueman sums things up pithily when he writes “At best, it’s a headrush; at worst, a headache.”

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