Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare's Globe, London
Emperor and Galilean, Olivier NT, London
Where's My Seat? Old Shepherd's Bush Library, London
While the two main performances in Marlowe's morality play disappoint, it's sin that provides the best entertainment
Sunday 26 June 2011
Paul Hilton's pale, skinny Faustus is in his study with a pile of books, one of them the Good Book. He flicks it open and reads out (from Romans, VI, 23): "The reward of sin is death". But this is Christopher Marlowe's tragic history of Doctor Faustus – the divinity scholar who sells his soul to the devil in spite of that hellfire warning.
Matthew Dunster's production forms part of The Word is God season at the Globe, which began with a cover-to-cover reading of the 400-year-old King James Bible. Faustus, however, casts the scriptures aside because he's an impatient Renaissance man. Aristotelian philosophy is also ditched in favour of necromancy. "A sound magician," he argues, "is a demi-god."
The main trouble with Dunster's production is that Hilton's performance is too laid back. Lolling behind his desk, flicking his fringe, he exudes arrogance but little sense of intellectual hunger. When he prepares to summon demons at the witching hour – drawing an invisible circle on the ground with a two-pronged stick – there's so little dramatic tension that you'd be forgiven for thinking he was hoeing his allotment on an afternoon off. It doesn't help that this is on the Globe's large, bare stage in daylight.
Nor does it feel, thereafter, as if Hilton is really torn between the dark arts and the urge to repent. As if to compensate, Faustus's Good and Bad Angels battle over him with excessive vim. Armoured like Joan of Arc and her fiendish alter ego, they fling themselves around, smashing swords. Meanwhile, Arthur Darvill's Devil is too chatty, failing to appreciate the chasms of despair underlying Mephi-stopheles' stark poetry.
So, both lead performances disappoint, and Faustus's adventures degenerate into a string of pranks. The production's masked dance, puppetry and prestidigitation are hit and miss as well. There are some fantastic touches, not least the gigantic fiends who stalk the stage on stilts, in long fur robes with goat-skull heads. The Seven Sins' parade becomes explosively funny as Jonathan Cullen's sumo-sized Gluttony flumps on Lechery's orgy, and Pearce Quigley turns the subplot's idiotic clown, Robin, into a prancing, deadpan delight. Still, as Hilton's Faustus sees death and the terrors of hell approaching, the return into tragic mode isn't achieved.
More of God and demi-gods in Emperor and Galilean, Henrik Ibsen's historical epic from the 1870s, staged by Jonathan Kent on an operatic scale with hymning processions and towering walls that spin up from the dark chasm of the Olivier's revolve. Ibsen's 4th-century apostate Julian (Andrew Scott) is a megalomaniac in the making. Nephew to Emperor Constantius, he starts out as a zealous Christian in Constantinople, scorning worldly temptations. But in his heart, he's defying his repressive usurper-uncle.
Escaping to Athens, he becomes a bright spark among free-thinking philosophers, but in Ephesus, he becomes enthralled by an old pagan mystic, played by Ian McDiarmid somewhere between guru and hobo. Prone to visions, Julian believes prophecies that messianic greatness is within his grasp. Once ensconced as Emperor, he reinstates the worship of Apollo, becomes increasingly deranged, and embarks on a disastrous military foray into the Middle East.
Ibsen's history plays are rarely aired in Britain, and Emperor and Galilean is a shockingly belated English premiere. It's fascinating to see how this saga (performed in ancient-meets-modern dress) reverberates with today's concerns about religious fundamentalism and imperialist wars, while it shuffles the cultural elements around. So, some of Ibsen's staunch Christians behave like today's Taliban militants. His sympathies swing too.
No dust settles on Kent's production or on Scott's fast-talking Julian, a neurotic driven by ambition. Agathon, Gregory and Peter, close-knit Christian friends from Julian's youth, pursue him with impassioned urgency, ending up as his persecuted nemeses. Nabil Shaban is a spectacularly sinister and gnarled Constantius, reclining on a gilded litter. There is some grandiose nonsense with stomping cohorts and the death of Julian's wife Helena (Genevieve O'Reilly) from poisoning – entailing much writhing and frock-ripping, natch. But the NT should inform theatre-goers, in its programme notes, about substantial textual inserts. The opening scene in Ben Power's adaptation is his invention, not Ibsen's. Overall, though, Power's conflations streamline Ibsen's sprawling two plays into an engrossing three-and-a-half hours. What Ibsen penned as a closet drama, to be read, not performed, the NT stages with cheer-inducing gusto.
Meanwhile, the Bush Theatre is playfully test-running its new, semi-gutted venue, the Old Shepherd's Bush Library. Where's My Seat? comprises three short plays performed in different configurations: thrust stage, in-the-round and end-on. Each writer had to include challenging stage directions (dreamt up by Michael Grandage, Alan Ayckbourn and the Bush artistic director Josie Rourke) and unlikely props, such as a giant strawberry, a basketball and a blue plane.
Admittedly, Deirdre Kinahan's The Fingers of Faversham is a feeble satire, in which Francesca Annis's snappy Margery (very Lynda Snell) finds her am-dram panto hijacked by an avant-gardist (Nina Sosanya). However, the evening and Tamara Harvey's ensemble then go from strength to strength. Fossils by Tom Wells is a hilarious yet touching portrait of two cranky loners (Annis and Richard Cordery) getting together. Jack Thorne's Red Car, Blue Car is astonishingly harrowing and poetic: interwoven monologues circling round a car crash. Thorne ingeniously turning the props into verbal, described memories – so the car driver who has killed a pedestrian, in a kind of slow-motion state of shock, recalls a blue plane passing overhead.
As for the venue, it's currently a scruffy, indie-style delight with cardboard boxes for a bar, bookshelves drawn in felt-tip on the walls, and Post-it notes for you to scribble what would make the place just perfect.
'Doctor Faustus' (020-7401 9919) to 2 Oct; 'Emperor and Galilean' (020-7452 3000) to 10 Aug; 'Where's My Seat?' (020-8743 5050) to 2 Jul
Kate Bassett looks on in horror as Kevin Spacey grabs the English throne, as Richard III
Michael Grandage's gripping production of Schiller's Luise Miller combines political machinations and class- defying young love, at the Donmar Warehouse, London (to 30 Jul). Dominic Cooke's revival of Chicken Soup with Barley, Arnold Wesker's epic portrait of Jewish East Enders' faith and politics, runs until 16 July at the Royal Court, London.
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