Christopher Marlowe wrote this play sometime around the late 1580s. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Marlowe met an untimely end in 1593 when he was stabbed above the eye during a quarrel about a guesthouse bill, or 'reckoning'. He may also have been involved in espionage which may have played some part in his demise. 'Doctor Faustus' was one of the most popular plays of the time and was regularly performed for half a century after the playwright's death.
The plot is quite straightforward. Doctor Faustus is an intellectual who has mastered most of the major subjects of the time: law, philosophy and the like. But magic draws him more than anything else and he conjures up Mephistopheles to make a pact with the devil. Faustus's idea is that he will let the devil have his soul in exchange for 24 years of service from Mephistopheles and a luxury lifestyle. Rather astutely, the devil insists on a contract which has to be signed in blood. After that, it's a kind of mixed bag of events before Faustus eventually gets dragged off to hell to serve out the rest of eternity moaning and wailing in fiery torments, or whatever happens in hell. You can probably imagine that this would all have been rather scary for the Elizabethan audiences who were preoccupied with religion and the afterlife. Nowadays, the spiritual dimension is upstaged by the more comedic elements here, since modern audiences are less likely to be worried about what will happen to their soul after the final curtain comes down.
This is the next play in the 'Word is God' season at the Globe. It actually turns out to be as much a farce as anything else. Good and bad angels, two huge dragons, some furry, oversized goats on stilts and a couple of odd looking creatures that Lucifer trails around with him are included in the cast. And a number of devil-like puppets are thrown in for good measure. Even with this menagerie and the inclusion of the seven deadly sins, it isn't exactly riotously funny. The action in the second half sweeps across Italy where we find the Pope torturing some unfortunate, and then we whizz off to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor where Alexander the Great turns up, and Helen of Troy also makes an appearance. It's certainly a wide-ranging piece.
Paul Hilton's highbrow, self-indulgent Faustus certainly enjoys the rewards of his pact, ending up in almost regal finery towards the end of the play. Arthur Darvill is the quietly sinister Mephistopheles, and Pearce Quigley as Robin and Richard Clews as Dick provide well-timed comic interludes.
Marlowe's play doesn't pack the same punch for us as it perhaps did for the Elizabethans. But it does have some well-written and witty lines, such as when Faustus is drawing-up the contract, Mephistopheles asks him to "write it in the form of a deed of gift". Nevertheless, 'Doctor Faustus' is hardly the most riveting play we've seen at this address, and even Matthew Dunster's meticulous direction cannot quite transform it into anything more than mildly entertaining.
"Dr Faustus isn't a great play...there is never quite enough frisson between the leads. This is a confident and lucid account of Marlowe's most famous work, but it's not electrifying."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Rude, robust, bawdy, magical and violent, it is a provocatively entertaining production."
Neil Norman for The Daily Express
"This is a Faustus that often looks impressive, with its sinister choreography and grotesque designs, but when it comes to genuine chills and thrills, the audience is left seriously short-changed."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
External links to full reviews from popular press
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