The Faustian legend doesn't quite strike terror into the heart of modern audiences. Elizabethan theatregoers would have been fearful of the dire fate awaiting Faustus, in this more secular age, we’re a bit more indifferent to his plight.
The Globe’s new production attempts to marry Faustus’ story with elements of farce. Director Matthew Dunster, has cut many of the more serious passages of the play. Much of the Latin has been excised – including the famous “Lente, lente currite…” while full play has been given to Marlow’s humorous passages. Every trick is employed – from puppets to stilt-walkers – mixed in with Jules Maxwell’s music, which sounded like it was from a sit-com.
For all the trickery, there’s something missing. Paul Hilton doesn’t really capture the extent of Faustus’s existential despair. There’s little sense of his dissatisfaction with the world and rather than being a magus willing to test the height of his powers, he emerges as a sort of cosmic joker, ready to find comedy in every situation. Arthur Darvill’s Mephistopheles is less the dreaded demon but an eager partner in Faust's machinations. His first appearance is not as the friar of Marlowe’s text but as a young man about town – indeed Faust and Mephistopheles have the appearance of two mates gadding about.
It means that we don't really follow the story of Faustus's decline and fall but wait for the latest comic set-piece – there's not usually long to wait. And Pearce Quigley’s Robin is particularly good at bringing out the comedy.
Dunster has some good ideas – the parade of the seven deadly sins is very well done, as is Faustus’s decapitation – but there's little sense that the play is a “tragical history” (to give the play its full title). Maybe this doesn’t matter, the audience seemed to lap it up.
But perhaps these days, when, on the whole, we reject religion, we're not going to be moved by the tale of the man who defies god. But the story of the man whose ambition forces him to over-reach himself still has some resonance and deserves better than being treated as a sideline for a parade of magic tricks, clowning and puppetry.