I find it quite amusing that the current production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic Doctor Faustus is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe, because I like to imagine the misters M and S (not to be confused with M&S) as terrible rivals who spat whenever they heard the other one’s name, reviled at the very thought of him. So Marlowe would be like WTF give me my own theatre for my plays; they’re just as important! Spoiler: they aren’t. I’m sorry and I really feel for Rupert Everett in Saving Private Shakespeare but Chris’s works do not have the everlasting genius or impact that Billy’s have. His Doctor Faustus was written in the late 1500s right before he died, and it seems more like a last-ditch effort to show the gods that he agrees that hell is bad oh please don’t send me there, instead of it being interesting dramatically. There’s no emotional journey or impact or sense of consequences – even though it’s about being doomed to hell. It’s pretty surprising that literally the biggest stakes imaginable appear so humdrum. This production has attempted to liven things up by employing the hottest production ploy of the season – switching the gender of the lead role – but it adds nothing.
My biggest problem is with the plot and how it plays out. (So that’s a big forking problem.) I always knew of Dr. Faustus generally and had an idea about the old German legend of Faust that it’s based on. I assumed that it was about a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for riches and glories and knowledge and stuff while on earth. More importantly, I assumed that the devil made the man an offer he couldn’t refuse and the poor man was suckered into agreeing to eternal damnation, too weak or desperate to realize it wasn’t worth it. I DID NOT KNOW that Faustus ACTIVELY sought out this deal himself. Not only did he seek it out, he forking CONJURED THE DEMON TO HIS HOME HIMSELF. I mean, am I supposed to feel bad for a guy who ACTIVELY forking CONJURES THE DEVIL IN ORDER to sell his soul?? No one has ever asked for what they got MORE than this muhfuhker. HE LITERALLY ASKED FOR IT. It opens with Faustus talking about how interested she (she’s a she in this) is in books on magic and conjuring and she wishes she could be better at it like she is at I don’t know REAL SCIENCE/things you can be a doctor in so she like gets a more advanced conjuring book from a friend who is great at conjuring?? it was unclear the wooden benches are tres uncomfortables (I know you said it like I wanted you to say it) so it took me a minute to settle. Anyway so Faustus, a woman who EARNED A DOCTORATE IN SOMETHING REAL, takes the magic book and says the spell for conjuring the forking demon Mephistopheles to her study. Mephistopheles is a woman here too, a red-head who is actually the spawn of Tori Amos and the woman from Newsradio (Vicki Lewis!). And Meph (I can’t keep typing the whole name) is like youuuu raaaaang? And Faustus is like ‘oh hear me Devil, I wish to sell my soul for powers of magic and knowledge of the universe and stuff like that there while I’m on earth!’ and Meph is like ‘um, okay cool, that was easy’ and Faustus is like ‘I’ll give the devil my soul if you give me these powers for 24 years more on earth’ and Meph is like ‘great, deal’ and to her demon friends she’s like ‘hahaha that was so easy just 24 years what a goddamn (literally) sucker, we would have let her have 50 I bet upp upp it’s too late girl, 24 it is.’ AND THAT’S THAT.
Honestly it sucks that Faustus is going to be tortured for eternity but Mephistopheles gets dealt a pretty terrible hand too – she has to stay by Faustus’s side for those 24 years and do whatever magics she wants done. That would be hell too. Faustus is annoying. I mean obviously she sucks for wanting to sell her soul with no qualms about it but she’s really a pain in the ass. Jocelyn Jee Esien is a fine actress I’m sure but this role did nothing for her, because the production simply made the gender switch and that’s all – they did nothing to support the decision. At least in Company, the show with the most acclaimed gender switch of the London theatre season, they reworked aspects of the story to make it make sense that it’s about a woman now. They did a lot more than simply change the pronouns. And yeah you might remember that I wasn’t the biggest fan of that production (I even saw it twice to try to fix my opinion) but I commend that they really worked through the gender change and tried to support the decision across all aspects of the show. Here, the decision is unformed, unassisted by any directorial maneuvers (except having people grab her boobs, so, yeah, no) and so it feels like a lark. They had the opportunity to delve into what the Faustian myth could mean specifically for women, but it’s left unanswered. Kind of disappointing, considering there are no rights holders to worry about arguing with! Making Mephistopheles (Pauline McLynn (but really Vicki Lewis)) a woman is less of a problem because she’s just playing a scary demon and she’s really pretty scary.
My favorite part was when at the initial deal-making phase, Mephistopheles is like ‘Faustus, happy to do this deal, but aren’t you worried at all about spending eternity in hell tortured by demons’ and Faustus actually says ‘nah not really fam, I don’t believe in any of it.’ I MEAN. YOU HAVE LITERALLY JUST CONJURED A DEMON INTO YOUR HOME AND YOU ARE TELLING HER YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN HER??? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TALKING TO?? I can’t. I mean maybe the contract should have been considered void since she was clearly not of sound mind.
The most frustrating part about the show was that there was no real journey for the main character, no growth. I can accept that it wasn’t written for dramatic worth but for religious worth, to confirm to religious people of the time that they were right for renouncing satan, but it doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating to watch. It’s a bit of a chore to see Faustus ruin her life and everyone’s around her when you can never have any sympathy for the character. Without the sympathy or even understanding of why tf she did this knowing full well what would happen, you can’t really care about her demise or her 11th hour plea (the latter of which is supposed to be completely heartbreaking but I was like, ‘so? I got nothing for you.’) And it’s maddening that Faustus doesn’t even really do anything noteworthy with her powers. She could do anything, but all she does for 24 years is what amounts to practical jokes, scaring people by blowing their candles out or moving their possessions and dumb crap that a teenager wouldn’t even settle for. What a waste.
So yeah, this is not my favorite play. I did forget that this was the one with the famous monologue “Is this the face that launched 1000 ships”, so I enjoyed hearing that when it started, but it just made me want to watch “Shakespeare in Love” again. Before seeing this, I assumed I would be saying that the moral of this story is to stay strong and remember that all is not lost and it’s never worth selling your soul to the devil. But now it’s like ‘bitches be loco!’
The Wanamaker playhouse is the steepest, most uncomfortable theatre yet. It’s small – only four rows or so in level – and lit only with candles, which is cool. The ‘stalls’ is a pit of loose benches with no backs. Then there is the lower level, which seems about stage height and is probably your best bet, especially if you get the fourth row (the last row) so you can lean against the wall. We were in the upper level, which felt like the top of a mountain, especially since the small stage is directly below you. If you’re up there, you have to lean forward on or over the railing pretty much the whole time. The bathrooms are the same ones as for the outdoor Globe theatre space, the ones that smell like public bathroom and have separate entrance/exit doors that no one ever uses properly.