Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 2 February 2019
Knowledge, education and learning were considered highly dubious in the 16th century but you have to wonder whether those in power were right to be suspicious. Paulette Randall’s gender-swap, colour-blind, version of Christopher Marlowe’s fiendish morality tale Doctor Faustus succeeds in ticking a lot of trendy boxes but fails to create innovative, or even interesting, theatre.
It’s just opened in the atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe and watching Jocelyn Jee Esien you’d be tempted to think that selling your soul to the Devil is no bad thing. Esien’s ambitious Faustus sounds a bit of a flyweight and doesn’t appear in any way corrupt or evil. Her only sin appears to be a thirst for knowledge.
She consumes books by the yard – and on all subjects – expanding her wisdom above and beyond the norm – yet, like an addict, she wants more, convinced that the more she knows the more powerful and influential she will become. Her craving for information leads her to offer her soul to Lucifer in return for unlimited data (and we all know that feeling).
For 24 years she is unstoppable and, for the most part, she doesn’t do anything catastrophic which is a weakness of the play. Given that sort of power, most of us would reach for the stars. Christ, you could achieve world dominance in a heartbeat. Yet, other than a few silly party tricks, she is remarkably constrained.
Which just about sums up the entire production. It work no differently, or better, by having a black woman play a white male character. She brings nothing extra to the role. It feels forced and gimmicky.
Some of the light-hearted banter falls flat and even Esien’s climactic meltdown, when faced with the jaws of eternal hell, fails to entirely convince.
Pauline McLynn, as the Devil’s agent, Mephistopheles, could be stronger. She often raises an eyebrow during a minimalist performance that gives her little to do other than trail behind the corrupt doctor.
The beautifully spoken Jay Villiers is playing both The Pope and Lucifer which is what? Randall’s dig at the hypocrisy and corruption of the church?
A lot of the dark solemnity in Marlowe’s text has been replaced with light comedic tones which may have been done to engage a modern audience but it just doesn’t work.
Doctor Faustus runs in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until February 2.
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