Monthly Archives: June 2016

What is this “despair”? : Marlowe on the London stage in 2016


Kit Harington greeting his fans.    

If you want to feel young in Washington DC, go to the theater.  Now that I am as old as Lady Wishfort, I myself in most gatherings at the higher end of the age range. Theater in DC, however, remains one place in which that is not reliably the case.  Imagine my surprise, then, in attending a production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London with hardly any gray hairs and a sea of young people chattering excitedly, checking their phones, looking at phones together, taking selfies, taking photos of the theater, and taking photos of each other.  My first thought was: what a great educational system that so many people under twenty-five get so excited about Marlowe!  As Doctor Faustus began to conjure and demons slinked around the stage, it gradually dawned on me that the other Kit—Kit Harington, who also stars in a television show called Game of Thrones—drew them out.  (I actually had not heard of Kit Harington and never watched Game of Thrones but could sense that the Faustus on stage had another life as a celebrity by the young audience’s particular kind of excitement.  I later confirmed this intuition.  According to Wikipedia, Harington can claim Charles II as one of his ancestors, and he looks, actually, a bit like him.) The restless enthusiasm of the audience shaped my experience of the production.  I was sitting next a pair of young fans from Germany.  The young man did not understand English as well as his companion, so she would translate for him in pretty much a normal speaking voice throughout the production, only slightly less distracting for being in German. “What is this ‘despair,’?” he asked at one point.  A long explanation in German followed.  Then one of them apparently dropped a cell phone.  Both panicked and were crawling around on the floor on their hands and knees, lighting the darkness under the chairs with a flashlight app from the remaining device.  Finally, when Jenna Russell as a steely female Mephistopheles sang “Bat out of Hell”—a highlight of the show—I turned and shushed them, which didn’t help all that much since three American girls behind us were chattering just as conspicuously.  They looked puzzled, offended, and contemptuous.

In spite of these disturbances—although possibly also because of them, a point I will explain—I found the production mesmerizing.  Doctor Faustus begins as a loner in a dingy apartment glued to his television.  He rejects religion, classical learning, and medicine.  He then ceremoniously opens his Macbook, the apple on the lid glowing eerily, to find an easier path to fulfillment.  He seems to be googling something like “conjure Satan,” which yields a set of rituals and incantations, although as Mephistophiles later explains, they mean nothing.  Satan always sends one of his minions to visit those who abandon God.  The devil’s agents, in fact, occupy Faustus’s apartment from the opening scene, slithering around in various states of undress.  Faustus signs the contract in spite of warnings to the contrary and indulges in 24 years as a celebrity magician, surrounded by adoring fans.  These fans appear to us as the same demons slithering around his apartment, but Faustus doesn’t seem to recognize them as such.  When he takes the show to Las Vegas, the demons become his dancers.  Somehow we know that this act looks very different to the Las Vegas audiences, but we only see the demons with their hollow eyes and dirty underwear, without a spangle or pastie in sight.

Reviewers in general did not like this production.  They point to a range of failings: that Kit Harington cannot handle the poetry of Marlowe; that too much blood, shit, and vomit fly across the stage; that too many brains explode.  The main objection, however, seems to be with the adaptation itself, which replaces the enigmatic middle stretch of the play with Faustus’s celebrity career.  The conclusion of the reviewer from The Daily Mail perhaps sums up these complaints: “Why anyone would take out a 24-year contract with Satan to become a Derren Brown-Axl Rose hybrid beats me, but Harington throws himself at this meagre ambition with prodigious enthusiasm.”

There are two ways, then,  of looking at this production.  One would be that the director Jamie Lloyd and the adapter Colin Teevan dumb down Marlowe and feature a television star with insufficient acting credentials in order to appeal to a younger audience. Several of the reviewers mention this as the trademark of this particular director. The other, however, is that the adapter and director asked themselves, what would people now demand in exchange for the high price of their souls?  In other words, perhaps this is a deliberate updating not just of stagecraft and dialogue but also of sin.  Perhaps Faustus’s ambition in this reboot is designed to come across as meagre, a pale shadow of the 16th-century ambition to possess infinite knowledge and power.  (It is also worth noting, of course, that Marlowe’s Faustus plays stupid tricks on the Pope with his newfound abilities.)

This brings me back to the young people next to me crawling around on the floor in search of the dropped phone.  They could have been part of the production, as could many of the audience members snapping selfies and basking in the excitement of seeing their favorite celebrity on stage.  Whether they meant to do this or not, Colin Teevan and Jamie Lloyd suggest a difference between temptations in 1592 and in 2016: if the 1592 Faustus sold his soul out of megalomaniacal ambitions, Kit Harington’s Faustus collapses into narcissism.  This may seem like a let-down, but perhaps this is the point.  While nostalgia for late Elizabethan megalomania would be misplaced, concern over a rise in narcissism has attracted the attention of some academic psychologists as well as numerous commentators on this year’s election cycle. (A witty highlight of the production was Faustus’s conjuring up the soul of Barack Obama for insight in the age of President Trump.)  Jean M. Twenge summarizes such research here, and concludes from a range of experimental data that narcissism has become a more significant social force.

This production of Doctor Faustus, then, could have been hypocritical, as some of the reviewers charged, for exploiting the celebrity of Kit Harington to draw audiences to a play about the emptiness of celebrity and the loss of genuine feeling, illustrated in the production by a now-female Wagner who offers Faustus hope of salvation through her love.  Or, it could have been a brilliantly self-conscious critique of its intended audiences, grotesquely distinguishing between what narcissists think others are seeing and what they actually see, captured as beautiful bodies in sparkling bikinis on the Las Vegas stage vs. writhing zombies in soiled underwear.  By attending the performance, you have already filled the pen with blood.  The good angel doesn’t look much different from the bad ones, vomiting white rather than black, but reminding the faux-magician that God still loves him. In this second possibility, then, the production offers through irony powerful insight into the ways in which temptation has shifted.

I’m going with the latter.