Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 2 February 2019
The Globe project, now led by Michelle Terry after recent upheavals, has become an even more remarkable thing. In its two experimental theatre spaces Elizabethan and Jacobean works are rediscovered in their original settings while, as part of this living history, Terry has enthusiastically embraced gender-blind casting. The women now playing male roles mirror the boys who played women 400 years ago, while allowing the Globe to push the boundaries of contemporary theatre with every production. It’s an exciting proposition, and Paulette Randall’s production of Doctor Faustus casts women in the lead roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles. If the production is a qualified success, it offers plenty to consider and to enjoy.
The usual problem with Christopher Marlowe’s play is that, while it contains some of the most glorious poetry in the English language, it also features some of the crudest drama. It is an odd combination, and the impression is of a play perched on the cusp of modernity, on the verge of breaking through into the universally recognisable forms of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Yet the play has been rediscovered recently, with three major productions at the RSC, in the West End and at the Globe itself after a generation of indifference. The simplicity of Marlowe’s central concept – the sale of a soul – is irresistible. For the RSC, Maria Aberg chose the two lead actors on the strength of a burning match every night, highlighting Faustus’ incendiary affront to the heavens and the interchangeable selves that embrace heaven and hell. Randall’s approach is much more traditional. Pauline McGlynn’s Mephistopheles is the leering, gleeful devil of folklore, enjoying herself a great deal in the part. It is, however, noticeable that Marlowe did not provide her with enough lines to make the most of the part. McGlynn is a powerful stage presence, but her performance could do with a little more ambiguity to increase its impact.
As Faustus, Jocelyn Jee Esien is a direct, rather than a poetic presence. Generally, the actor in this role soars with the gorgeous rhetoric that bookends the play. Instead, her performance takes the role back to earth, an approach that pays off in the usually strained scenes where Faustus exercises her devil-bought powers. These scenes of farcical capering – baiting princes and monks tricking ostlers – are remarkably entertaining, played with energy by an excellent, committed cast including an extra-jumpy Sarah Amankwah and the comic duo of John Leader and Louis Maskell.
Lily Bevan brings a great presence to several parts, including that of Beelzebub himself. Randall uses the trapdoor effectively to create authentic 17th-century effects but misses a trick by skating over the ritual incantations that summons Mephistopheles from Hell. The still-astonishing, candle-lit setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse creates a powerful sense of a gloomy, enclosed Wittenberg study, stacked with books. The wide open spaces of the mind, which Marlowe’s writing at its best opens up, feel diminished by both performance and production style.
While there are areas of weakness in Randall’s production, the evening is driven by the sense of seeing something new: a play that may never have been performed with female leads on the professional, in the only setting of its kind. Doctor Faustus certainly provides an entertaining evening and, if it raises questions as well as providing answers, its approach is fresh, important and fascinating.