A bold opening to the Gate’s autumn season, David Davalos’ Wittenberg
combines historical comedy, theological tutorial and literary flight of
fancy. Re-imagining Martin Luther’s time at Wittenberg University, the
dramatis personae include his friend, sparring partner and fellow
professor Dr John Faustus and the prize student for whose attentions
they compete – the happy-go-lucky young Prince Hamlet.
As premises go, this is immediately intriguing and opens entertaining
possibilities. Occasionally Davalos relies too heavily on the cheap
amusement of literary references (the countless "to be or not to be"
gags tire), but he frequently displays a quick wit and a pleasure in the
absurd. From Faustus’ sideline as a pub crooner to Hamlet’s tennis
career, there’s much fun to be had; and Oliver Townsend’s design revels
in this playful mash-up, mixing period sets with jeans, neon signage and
It should also be fertile ground for literary, philosophical and
theological themes, but here Wittenberg falls short. Advancing its
narrative through humour rather than drama, the frequent debates between
Luther’s religion and Faustus’ hedonistic humanism are simultaneously
superficial and far too long, extending the play to an undeserved two
hours and 20 minutes.
Christopher Haydon directs with verve, keeping the visuals enjoyable
when the philosophical soliloquising drags. In a promising pre-cursor to
his upcoming position as the Gate’s new artistic director, he also
makes excellent use of the space, bringing the action into the audience
to open out the sometimes tunnel-like auditorium.
Despite the best efforts of a fine cast and a showdown finale, the
constant comic tangents serve ultimately to trivialise rather than
enliven the historical context. And Haydon never works hard enough to
prevent the script’s tendency for self-indulgent witticisms from
drowning out its dramatic potential.