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All over the world, Game of Thrones viewers are speculating fiercely over the fate of Kit Harington’s Jon Snow in season six of the HBO series, which began airing Sunday. Meanwhile, in London’s West End, those watching Harington play the title role onstage in Doctor Faustus can feel reassured that, however much prolific director Jamie Lloyd and playwright Colin Teevan may have tinkered with Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century text, at least one thing is certain: Faustus is going to hell. But even if the last act can’t be spoiled, there are still some pleasant surprises to be had from this lively, lusty and irreverent production, which takes aim at celebrity culture, religion, Pope Francis, David Cameron and Barack Obama alike.
It’s no surprise that, with the show opening so proximal to Thrones‘ season premiere, tickets are selling briskly. The production is certainly not shy about finding excuses to strip Harington almost naked, right down to his blood-stained jockey shorts. And those who come only to gawk will go away reasonably satisfied (and intrigued to see he’s still rocking a full head of longish Jon Snow hair). Some, unimpressed by his often wooden performances on the TV show, and unfamiliar with his previous work (well-regarded turns in War Horse and Posh on stage, a strong supporting role in Testament of Youth on film), may also be pleasantly surprised at Harington’s confident, charismatic performance here.
His enunciation and delivery could use polish, and it’s noticeable that he can’t make the meaning of every line transparent through expression alone the way much of the rest of the seasoned cast can. But Harington has grace and presence, and in such an overwhelmingly physical piece of theater, that counts for a lot.
Like the 2013 production directed by Dominic Hill that played at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theater in Glasgow, this version sandwiches a midsection written in contemporary prose by Teevan, updated for 2016, between two thick slices of original Marlowe in all their blank-verse glory. (The middle acts in surviving versions of the “original” play are much contested and thought not to have been written by Marlowe anyway.) And like Hill’s version, Mephistopheles is played by woman (Jenna Russell), who in the midsection becomes Faustus’ onstage sidekick as he finds fame and glory as a magician, wowing the crowds in Las Vegas, mixing with world leaders and celebrities alive and dead.
Judging from reviews and clips available from Hill’s production, Lloyd’s staging appears to be more minimalist in design, starker and gorier. Russell’s demon is no curvy bombshell but a matter-of-fact middle-aged woman, rueful with regrets but also impish at times, never more so than when she opens the second half with a spirited if off-key karaoke rendition of Kylie Minogue’s “Better the Devil You Know.”
Like Lloyd’s recent production of The Maids, a curdled sense of camp adds a swishy, sinister edge to the proceedings here. Most of the ensemble lurks onstage throughout, staring blankly into space or peeking through windows like menacing ghosts, clad in scruffy, beige underwear. (Craig Stein’s Evil Angel gets to mince about in a silky slip.) Sometimes, they’re buck naked, which must make things easier for the wardrobe department given how much vomiting of fake black bile and blood goes on. The blocking and Polly Bennett’s movement direction sometimes arrange the ensemble in chorus lines, but otherwise there’s just quite a lot of milling about, like souls already unmoored from their bodies, already in Hell.
Designer Soutra Gilmour’s dark-walled apartment room evokes in the opening and closing acts the set of some lost David Lynch film, while two suburban-themed photos by Gregory Crewdson in the program affirm that his lurid color schemes and pallid figures are another visual touchstone for Lloyd and his collaborators.
The problem is that the lighting, movement and design, especially when coupled with Marlowe’s Elizabethan verse, are more powerful and evocative than Teevan’s midsection dialogue, which revolves around pantomime references to current events (like the offshore investments of David Cameron’s father) and a thinly developed love story between Faustus and his servant Grace Wagner (Jade Anouka). Sneering at celebrity worship feels like pandering to the theater crowd’s smuggest sense of superiority. It’s perhaps also an act of bad faith, given that the whole show is happily exploiting the fame of its star performer.
Venue: The Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Cast: Kit Harington, Jenna Russell, Forbes Masson, Jade Anouka, Tom Edden, Danielle Flett, Brian Gilligan, Garmon Rhys, Craig Stein, Gabby Wong
Playwrights: Christopher Marlowe, Colin Teevan
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music and sound designer: Ben and Max Ringham
Movement director: Polly Bennett
Fight director: Kate Waters
Special effects: Scott Penrose
A Jamie Lloyd Company production, presented by Howard Panter and Adam Speers for Ambassador Theatre Group
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