As the night grew black last night, Shakespeare’s Globe grew blacker still with ghostly apparitions, black magic and devilish beasts taking over the stage for Matthew Dunster’s engrossingly gory Doctor Faustus.
As part of the Globe’s The Word Is God season, Christopher Marlowe’s once controversial, and still unsettling play takes a look at the very darkest side of religion. The tone is set from the very opening scene when musicians dressed in beaked, Venetian carnival headpieces accompany a group of Tim Burton-inspired scholars in a possessed dance, round sunglasses hiding their eyes and heavy books under their arms.
Paul Hilton’s arrogant Faustus stands out amongst them, a self-important scholar who wishes to leave the boredom of philosophy and science behind to explore the fantastical and mysterious instead. His bible is soon replaced by spell books and magic, his Christianity losing its way in the tempting face of the fallen angel Lucifer.
When Faustus uses his new found skills to conjure the devil, he is met by Lucifer’s servant Mephistopheles (Arthur Darvill) who, like a twisted genie, promises to grant him his every desire. All in return for the small matter of his soul and eternal damnation.
Signing the contract in blood, Faustus embarks on his promised 24 years of pleasure and power. But as the full extent of his sacrifice becomes clear, the silks and gold of his ‘blessed’ life soon give way to guts, blood and torture.
Staged on a near empty stage, Dunster’s direction creates a constant flow of distractions and delights, with puppetry creating flying dragons, actors taking to stilts to become vast fur coated demonic rams and trap doors doubling up as the gateway to hell. From there anything might appear, including the personification of the seven deadly sins, each of which appears to Faustus, from the frightening multi-sword wielding Wrath to a fat suit-wearing, flatulent Greed.
While plenty of comic relief comes by way of Pearce Quigley and Richard Clew’s hilariously dead-pan, one-sandwich-short-of-a-picnic double act, it is the intensity of the relationship between the short-sighted Faustus and the silently seething Mephistopheles that draws you in. Wearing matching cloaks and blood red caps that look like melted wax, Dunster’s portrayal of their relationship is almost brotherly. But Darvill never lets the intensity of his dark performance slip, his utter lack of empathy a constant reminder of the evil hidden behind his unsettlingly compliant persona.
Hilton gives an equally impressive performance as the cavalier Faustus, but Dunster’s production doesn’t quite raise the stakes high enough and we never get to see the true torment that one would expect when faced with the prospect of eternity with Nigel Cooke’s silent Lucifer and his grotesque hog companions. But as Faustus says, if God forbid it, Faustus did it. And Hilton’s Faustus made it look fun.