It may be more spectacle than substance, but this production of Doctor Faustus is so jolly that one can’t help but be carried along on the tide of flashes and bangs. While some of the subtleties and delicacy of Marlowe’s language get lost in director Matthew Dunster’s eagerness to rattle along to the next magic trick, these are done with such flair and joie de vivre that it’s easy to forgive this production’s weaker points.
Arthus Darvill is a jauntily-dressed, pointily-bearded Mephistopheles, who reeks malevolence and is clearly enjoying toying with Paul Hilton’s tormented Faustus. However, with both, there is a sense of holding back: Darvill throws away one of Mephistopheles’ greatest lines (“why, this is hell, nor am I out of it”), almost muttering it to a cowering Faustus, and Hilton doesn’t always cut to the heart of Faustus’s inner turmoil – both could do with more emotional heft.
Although there were many things to enjoy in the production, that’s what’s stuck with me: it was a bit lightweight. For a play that examines the depths of human desires, that ponders intense philosophical questions, that deals with life and death, salvation and damnation, I can’t help but feel that Dunster has sacrificed depth for exuberant colour and clowning. It was much funnier than I was expecting, and while this is fine, it needed some darker moments to contrast.
However, the lighter moments are excellently done. The comedy trio of Robin, Dick and the horse courser are all excellent, playing up to the audience, milking every bawdy joke (and adding some in for good measure) and generally playing for laughs. The threat of hell for those who meddle in magic and necromancy is real enough, and Mephistopheles’s casual cruelty to those foolish enough to try briefly brings a much-needed sense of peril to the proceedings.
The props and puppets (designed by Paul Wills) are gorgeous – especially a rather wonderful pair of dragons. The costumes, too, are sumptuous, and Wills has let his imagination run riot for the devils and angels’ costumes with great effect. The music (composed by Jules Maxwell) is entertaining and mostly spot-on, although again I feel that Dunster relies rather too heavily on thunderous drum-rolls to create tension. He could do with coaxing his cast to produce more of the tension themselves.
The production overall is snazzy, slapstick and, well, sexy, but doesn’t always hit the mark in the darker scenes. Faustus’s soul-searching never comes to much, and despite Darvill embodying Mephistopheles with a louche swaggering menace, it is hard to believe that Faustus is really in mortal peril until the very end when he is dragged kicking and screaming to hell. For a show that is lacking in depth and has over-invested in spectacle, it is, at least, spectacular to look at.
Dr Faustus is playing at the Globe Theatre until 2nd October. For more information and to book tickets, see the website here.