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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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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 miniskirts.

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.

- Will Young


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