In the surviving texts of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, there are only two female characters – one has a handful of lines, the other is mute – but director Paulette Randall has redressed the balance. In her impressive new production in The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, she has cast a woman of colour for the title role as well as actresses for the key parts of the diabolical Mephistopheles and Wagner, the doctor’s servant who is also the story’s narrator. It adds an extra dimension to this classic tale of a man acquiring knowledge through a pact with the Devil that allows him to challenge all kinds of authority. As she demonstrates her magic to the Holy Roman Emperor or plays pranks on the Pope, these characters are still played by male actors, subtly serving to highlight some of the patriarchal power structures depicted in the play without overpowering the existing drama.
The re-gendering of Faustus has required some tinkering of the words but Randall has otherwise opted for a full-scale production, retaining some characters and scenes that are regularly excised. Working with dramaturg Jude Christian, she has used much of the comic material from the 1616 text, published 23 years after the playwright’s death, rather than a shorter earlier version. This seamlessly brings in the antics of Robin, Dick and other working-class characters who are cruelly tormented by the smarter, more powerful Faustus and Mephistopholes. Despite the gender switch, this offers up a definitive staging of the play, with Randall’s pared-back direction allowing the robust beauty of Marlowe’s poetry to shine through.
In contrast to more spectacular productions such as Colin Teevan and Jamie Lloyd’s adaption with Kit Harington two years ago, there are few special visual effects beyond the odd firecracker and very effective use of the playhouse’s natural candlelight. Atmosphere is built by eerie sound effects created by the four-strong band in the attic gallery above the stage along with music by composer Joseph Roberts. Particularly memorable is the soundtrack to the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, with driving percussive rhythms inspired by the Candomblé religious tradition that was taken to Brazil by African slaves. Their ceremonies also influence the seven striking costumes created by the production’s designer, Libby Watson.
Despite using a longer version of the text, the show never flags which owes much to the performance of Jocelyn Jee Esien – best known for her comedy roles – as Faustus. She portrays her as a scholar who genuinely “fears not damnation”, delighting in her knowledge and power, even when she wastes it on playful tricks. Even as she is drawn into the fires of Hell, she appears to express reluctant acceptance more than penitent agony about defying God. Pauline McLynn, also best known for comedy, is not the first woman to play Mephistopholes but she brings a dry humour to the role, a long-suffering companion who tolerates Faustus’s behaviour for the sake of securing her precious soul.
With Wagner merged with the traditional Chorus, Mandi Symonds stands out as a contemplative narrator combining wry amusement with sadness about her mistress’s fate. Louis Maskell and John Leader are athletically funny as the foolish Dick and Robin, with Maskell also memorable as a gloriously white-winged Good Angel and the heavily hungover lord Benvolio who is punished for mocking Faustus. With dance and movement created by performance artist Paradigmz, this is a lively production with a modern twist that still manages to celebrate the poetry and theatricality of Marlowe’s play.
Running to 2 February 2019. Originally published by BritishTheatre.com. Photo by Marc Brenner.