Review: Doctor Faustus – Shakespeare’s Globe

The Devil has all the best tunes and, in Shakespeare’s Globe’s first staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, he also has a cracking play.

Arguably Marlowe’s most famous play also holds a unique place in theatrical history, the only play of the period to explicitly cover religion, a surprising move given Marlowe’s atheist credentials.

Wittenberg scholar Faustus rejects conventional teaching and turns to magic to conjure up Mephistopheles. In a pact with Mephistopheles’ master Lucifer, Faustus trades twenty four years of service from the devils lieutenant in return for his soul. Sealing the dark deed in blood Faustus looks forward to the wealth his dark arts will reap. The notoriety and wealth blind the scholar to the retribution that awaits him but Mephistopheles is on hand to remind him of his eternal damnation.

Matthew Dunster’s production for The Globe is a work that balances clarity and spectacle to provide a clear and gripping rendition. Using music, comedy and spectacle to create a vivid backdrop to Faustus’ downfall, Dunster creates and evening of lavish spectacle. Flames appear from mid air, giant monstrous apparitions taunt the audience and there’s enough gore to satisfy the most blood thirsty observer. This conjuring and spectacle never distracts though, instead reinforcing the magical elements of the piece.

At the heart of the success is a remarkable double act. Paul Hilton and Arthur Darvill as Faustus and Mephistopheles have a real chemistry. Hilton gives his Faustus a restless intensity, overwhelmed by the possibilities his alliance with the devil provides and blissfully unaware of the ultimate price he must pay. By the time he realises the consequences of his actions and attempts to renege on his pledge, it is a performance of pure fear.

Darvill’s Mephistopheles in counterpoint is a much more subtle, and as a result a deeply chilling performance. Darvill is a spectral figure, quietly observing and guiding proceedings but behind the quiet exterior is an ice cold heart within the fires of hell. When the benign turns into the avenging devil it is truly terrifying.

Alongside the central duo there are fine performances throughout the company. Felix Scott’s Wagner, Pearce Quigley’s Robin and Beatriz Romilly’s and Charlotte Broom’s Good and Bad angels all provide memorable moments.

There’s also much atmosphere added by Genevieve Wilkins’ band, providing an effective musical backdrop to the unfolding action.

Some may find Marlowe’s mix of the grotesque horror with manic farce an unsatisfying combination but it does serve to reinforce the normality that Faustus is forsaking in his dark dealings with Lucifer.

As the night sky darkens over the Globe and the wind rattles around the wooden O, a chill runs down the spine, and for once it has little to do with the vagaries of the British weather. As one heads back along the Southbank one can’t help but feel Shakespeare’s Globe have served up a devilish delight.

Picture: Arthur Darvill, Paul Hilton and company in Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo Keith Patterson

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