Doctor Faustus, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds


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The Independent Culture

It takes a certain bravery to tinker with one of the great plays of the classical canon – let alone rip out two entire acts and replace them with brand spanking new material. True scholars have long debated how much of the established Doctor Faustus was written by Christopher Marlowe, not to mention the quality of what has been passed down through the years.

But one certain thing about writer Colin Teevan’s bold editions is that they bring the play bang up to date whilst remaining true to the wit and power of the original script and the richness of the language. This collaboration between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre is an exciting and daringly realised production which is a thing of beauty to watch.

Played in modern day dress it begins with the young Faustus, a geeky bespectacled young fellow, who embarks on a voyage of discovery in which he seeks to answer the age old question of exactly why it is that the devil has all the best music.

The results of course, are catastrophic for the inquiring young doctor played by Kevin Trainor as he is led by the hand and various other appendages into the bowels of a chaotic hell by Siobhan Redmond’s statuesque Mephistopheles.

Marlowe’s life was as extraordinary as his work. Playwright, free-thinker, spy, atheist and homosexual – all these themes are explored in this play first published in 1604 at a time when the religious world was in turmoil. Little seems to have changed in the meantime and the Catholic Church’s present travails provide an open goal for Teevan in his two additional acts and he delights in scoring.

The new sequences see Faustus elevated to celebrity in an X-Factor style transformation. Much of the action is set backstage as his career arc as a Vegas strip illusionist in the David Copperfield mould rises and falls towards the inevitable final encounter with the grim reaper. This provides the best moments of the play especially the scene in which he entertains old rocker Saxon Bruno and at the end as his celebrity begins to wane.

Some might feel jolted by the contrast between the classical and the modern and the hand break turns in which the action switches between the old and new. But such reservations aside this offers an encouraging vision for the future of the theatre under new artistic director James Brining.

West Yorkshire Playhouse to 16 March and then Citizens Theatre, Glasgow 5-27 April