Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus – review at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Jamie Lloyd’s contemporary update of Doctor Faustus starts out on fairly familiar ground. Kit Harington’s sweaty-palmed scholar consults his necromantic Macbook and makes his fateful blood pact, but then it takes a detour. This is because Lloyd’s using Colin Teevan’s recent adaptation of the text for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which dispenses with the middle section and splices in new scenes.
Here the good doctor’s mastery of the dark arts leads him to become world-famous magician, a kind of Bieber-Christ figure with a dusting of Derren Brown who consorts with popes and presidents. Lucifer is a Glaswegian in a stained vest; Mephistopheles an androgynous trickster-cum-tour manager; his diabolical attendants and familiars are now groupies, a pack of gawping white walkers with Harington’s face emblazoned on their chests. Celebrity culture here walks hand in hand with Beelzebub.
By all things holy, this is a very busy production; it’s cacophonous and fidgety, occasionally ingenious, often absurd. It never shuts up. There are comedy schlongs and canned laughter. There are gags about David Cameron (there are also actual gags of the bondage variety). There is an awful lot of bodily fluids: blood, spittle, spatter. Mouths froth. Wounds ooze. Amid all this Harington is nothing if not game. He drools and moons. He spends a lot of time on stage in just his pants. Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles feels slightly under-utilised in comparison until a demonic second act karaoke session. Forbes Masson is as menacing as a man can be in a pair of grubby y-fronts.
Lloyd’s visual sense remains impeccable. 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.
This is the Jamie Lloyd Company’s first foray beyond the Trafalgar Studios and it feels slightly cruder than his work there. But while his West End productions might not be transcendent, they are incredibly savvy and never, ever dull. He’s making smart choices, in terms of casting and programming, and in doing so he’s making theatre that’s accessible and appealing. A shame that once again the production features the brutal violation of a woman – it might be intended to show how far Faustus has fallen, but it’s an ugly trope.
While the production sometimes strains to make Marlowe’s own riff on the medieval morality play relevant, it’s definitely going to get people talking. Half-hellmouth, half-klaxon, this is attention-grabbing theatre, and you have to admire the chutzpah of opening this show on the same night season six of Game of Thrones – in which Harington plays dashing, taciturn bastard Jon Snow – premieres in the UK. If half of that energy and sense of excitement can translate to theatre, then (blood-spattered) hats off to him.