With the spotlight firmly on William Shakespeare in 2016, it's certainly refreshing to see a play by one of his most celebrated contemporaries in a new commercial production in the West End, as the Jamie Lloyd Company move from the Trafalgar Studios to the Duke of York's Theatre. Having set a precedent for reinventing classic plays over the past two years, it was clear that this version of Marlowe's most famous play, Doctor Faustus, would be bang up to date, but unlike the cleanliness of his previous productions I found myself lost and bemused in the shuffle.
The Faustian myth is one that has survived countless adaptations and updates throughout the years, with the primary theme of man's desire to overreach resonating throughout decades and transcending cultural barriers. Lloyd's update survives the modern parallel, but as a play doesn't offer a deeper examination of man's basic impulse and at times feels only surface level.
Adapted by Colin Teevan, it's Faustus for the YouTube generation – including timely digs at David Cameron's father and a cameo by Mary Berry which hammer home the relevance. Whilst these gain chuckles from the crowd, they don't hit you where it hurts and rather than draw me in I couldn't help but feel the exact opposite. Whilst I'm all for updating classics to attract new audiences, sometime in trying too hard to be 'cool' you end up being Amy Pohler's character in 'Mean Girls' – transparent.
The performances are superb, from the haunted central figure of Kit Harington played as a troubled millennial with a greedy desire for fame and fortune through to a stunningly crisp Jenna Russell, sporting a beautiful new hair cut, as Mephistopheles. Together they work hard to blend the gaps between the old and modern texts, finding a perfect balance against the heavy white noise that surrounds them, and they manage to carve out a focus that is otherwise considerably lacking.
Amid the blood the sex and the gore Harington could well be starring in an episode of Game of Thrones, but he manages to weight the production without ever dominating. Stripped down to his pants I could practically hear the gaggle of girls behind me high-five each other, and looking around the auditorium his presence is certainly bringing in a different demographic of theatre goers, which along with the £15 Mondays is refreshing and exciting to see.
There's fantastic support from a tirelessly working ensemble, including Jade Anouka as a deeply sympathetic Wagner and Tom Edden as Good Angel, whose set piece of the seven deadly sins is a particular highlight.
At times it feels like a parody of a Katie Mitchell production. Nudity, gore, violence and gallons of blood litter the stage – in isolation these work but as a whole threaten to over boil and muddle the production's key message. I was slightly underwhelmed by the magic and illusions, for all the screaming and constant volume that surrounded them, but found much to enjoy in Soutra Gilmour's metamorphic set that opened up the bowels of the Duke of York's Theatre and managed to fight the traditional confines of a highly traditional proscenium space.
I feel this is a production that will split many right down the middle. Lloyd is never easy on his audiences, and challenges them at every turn. Whilst this method worked handsomely for The Maids, I found Faustus to have too much noise and too much clutter to be able to fully attach to the message. This is not a 'less is more' production, and despite it feeling overly styled I couldn't help wish for some moments of calm and reflection – but Russell's half-time show style karaoke seemed worthy of its own full production, and will certainly leave you with a smile on your face.
"The production verges on being totally incomprehensible..."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Colin Teevan’s adaptation, which totally rewrites the farcical central acts, only compounds the confusion and Jamie Lloyd’s production seems based on the idea that nothing succeeds like excess."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Lloyd and Teevan are astute about today’s slavish fixation with celebrity, yet the result feels like an exercise in bombarding us with toxic images.."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The show is really stolen by alt musical star Jenna Russell as a sullen, sarcastic and terrifying Mephistopheles, with whom Faustus has a peculiarly intense, sexually charged relationship."
Andrzej Lukowski for Time Out