This co-production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Citizens Theatre promises the best of both worlds; Marlowe’s original meaty Elizabethan text bookending two new acts written by Colin Teevan.
Marlowe introduces us to the central character, played here by Kevin Trainor as petulant, arrogant and just a little bit campy; part Kevin the Teenager, part Alan Carr. Theologically confused by the death of his parents and intellectually unsatisfied by his academic studies Faustus conjures up the Devil, represented by his sultry sidekick Mephistopheles (Siobhan Redmond), and agrees to sell his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited hedonistic pleasure and wish-fulfilment.
For the realisation of Faustus’ desires we are in Teevan’s hands. He catapults us in to the modern world, with modern parlance, where Faustus has become an acclaimed magician, travelling the world, entertaining the great and the good, with more money and sex than he could ever need.
Teevan’s section has undeniable parallels with Jerry Springer: The Opera, simultaneously taking swipes at religion and our modern-day celebrity-obsessed culture. In this regard Teevan ably demonstrates that Marlowe’s work still has a contemporary relevance but it lacks the satirical bite or the conviction to really push the boundaries that was prevalent in Springer.
In the use of his newfound powers Faustus clearly lacks imagination and, despite a text so full of magic and devilment, the same accusation could be levelled at this production as a whole. As an audience we want to experience the full potency of Faustus’ abilities, but what we get are largely joke-shop amusements.
Obviously the point here is that Faustus has wasted his gift but surely his gift by its very nature is a waste as it has been at the expense of ever being able to love or be loved. So why not really waste it? If the Devil is giving you free rein to do anything your heart desires would your ultimate wish be to become a nightclub entertainer?
Despite the huge leaps in time this production lacks a sense of impetus. It could be argued that this mirrors Faustus’ wasting of his gift, he fritters away time without doing anything with it, but as a spectacle it results in the play never really moving out of second gear. This is particularly highlighted whenever Mephistopheles is on stage, Redmond (an actress I have much-admired since 90’s sitcom The High Life) is a solemn presence with a precise delivery (in an off-puttingly unplacable accent) that tends to sap the action of any dynamism.
The final act returns to Marlowe’s text and illustrates Faustus’ inevitable comeuppance. One can’t like Faustus – and one probably isn’t supposed to – but it’s hard to feel anything for him when Lucifer comes calling and he finally regrets the choices he has made. Perhaps If the pleasures and gifts bestowed upon him through his powers were more evidently seductive and irresistible we could better understand his actions and feel something for him but if your dearest wish is to become a modern-day Paul Daniels with better hair and a sexier assistant then frankly you deserve to be damned to hell for all eternity.
In an evening strangely devoid of magic there was however one wondrous spectacle still to behold. I was thrilled to discover the West Yorkshire Playhouse has finally removed the decrepit hand-dryers from the gents’ toilets and replaced them with swanky new air-blade “style” ones. I wonder who had to sell their soul to the devil to pull off that trick.
Doctor Faustus continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 16 March. For further information visit www.wyp.org.uk.