Doctor Faustus

Actor Kit Harington is best known for his role as Jon ‘You know nothing’ Snow in Game of Thrones – but in his role as the title character in Doctor Faustus it’s Faustus’ quest for mastery of all human knowledge that gets him into trouble. This irreverent production of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play is directed by Jamie Lloyd, but has been taken out of the usual Trafalgar Studios setting and is being performed in the much more traditional space of the Duke of York’s Theatre. This production, however, is anything but traditional.

Doctor Faustus is the well-known tale in which a scholar, in search of knowledge and power, summons the demon Mephistopheles and makes a bargain with the Devil: Faustus will enjoy unlimited knowledge and power for twenty-four years, after which his soul will belong to Lucifer. The play has one obvious problem, in that it’s pretty clear from the beginning how it’s going to end, and directors and adaptors have resorted to different devices throughout the years to keep the audience interested. What Lloyd does is to use a modern adaptation, with a contemporary middle section written by Colin Teevan. This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds, as it has been suggested that Marlowe did not himself write the middle section of his play.

The production as a whole is in modern dress, so the middle section fits in pretty well, even if I found it hard to believe that someone with the power that Faustus has would choose to spend his life performing conjuring tricks on stage. Perhaps Lloyd was trying to make the point that in the twenty-first century, fame is as much of a draw for an individual as scholarly knowledge was in Marlowe’s time. Kit Harington is obviously the main draw for many audience members, and I thought he acquitted himself rather well with Marlowe’s language, convincing as the student searching for knowledge and the older, more experienced man who knows hell is coming for him. Jenna Russell makes a great Mephistopheles, and the supporting cast are strong.

I can’t say that I loved this production, but it did make me think, and in some ways this is more important. The ending sequence I found particularly memorable for suggesting that the whole thing was happening inside Faustus’ head, which made the rest of the production make sense in a way that it hadn’t previously. In a way, I’d rather see a flawed production like this that leaves me with lots to think about, than a smoother production that asks fewer questions.

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