Note: this blog post considers Doctor Faustus, directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Duke of York’s. I watched the play in preview – the press night is 25 April and the production runs until 25 June. As I saw the show in preview I offer this post as a general discussion of the production and the phenomenon of celebrity casting, rather than as a review. Nonetheless, it contains some things that might be considered spoilers so do bear that in mind.
Celebrity casting has enabled theatre companies to make Shakespeare the hottest ticket in town. Last year the phenomenon of CumberHamlet followed on from the success of Tom Hiddlestone in Coriolanus: these productions traded on the cachet of Shakespeare, for sure, but also on the star appeal of their leading men. Fans flocked to the theatres to see Cumberbatch and Hiddlestone but also, by extension, Sherlock and Loki, as well as Hamlet and Caius Martius. The success of British stage actors in US film and TV has meant that actors who first made their name in the theatre have come to bring additional celebrity appeal: new generations know Ian McKellen as Gandalf and/or Magneto. But this celebrity appeal is not entirely new. When sixteenth-century playgoers attended the theatres they knew they were seeing Edward Alleyn, or Richard Burbage and those playgoers presumably carried with them the memories of past performances and other characters. How much of Alleyn’s Tamburaline did Elizabethan audiences see in his Faustus?
In my experience, modern celebrity casting changes the audience dynamic (and often, the audience composition) but I haven’t picked up on whether knowledge of the identity of the celebrity has much of an effect on an interpretation of the play. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know enough about the actors themselves or the shows they appear in; it might be that more avid fans are making connections I am not able to access. None of this is a problem, of course, but still a potential point of interest. After all, none of these productions depend upon prior knowledge of the actor: presumably, there were people at Hamlet who didn’t know that much about Cumberbatch; presumably people went to see Doctor Faustus in the 1580s without knowing much about Edward Alleyn. And so it was for me as I prepared to watch Kit Harington play Faustus in Jamie Lloyd’s production in the Duke of York’s. I don’t watch Game of Thrones – to me, Jon Snow is a newsreader, not the bastard son of the lord of Winterfell – so I wondered how my limited knowledge of the celebrity of the actor might affect my playgoing experience.
Does it matter that the person playing Faustus is a celebrity? I expected the answer to be ‘not really’ but to my surprise I found that the production very playfully drew on Harington’s star appeal. Although the production begins and ends with Marlowe’s blank verse large swathes of the play have been rewritten by the Irish playwright Colin Teevan. These new scenes replaced much of the comic jesting including Faustus’s visit to the Pope (here played as a visit to the President of the United States). Shortly after Faustus’s encounter with the seven deadly sins (nicely played by Tom Edden) the production took an abrupt about turn. The set – initially, a hotel room – was transformed and Faustus appeared to step outside of the play as he and the other characters abandoned blank verse and early modern English. Time was telescoped so in the instant that Faustus walked through the door of the new set we moved into a future in which he was now a celebrity magician, famous for his illusions. Harington was playing a different version of Faustus, but also a different version of himself and part of the enjoyment for the audience was seeing him revelling in this role by exposing his abs and even, at one moment, his backside. ‘This is what you came to see!’ is the overall effect of this strutting performance.
This, then, was a production that made particular use of its celebrity lead. It was interesting to see how much freer Harington seemed in these scenes. We sometimes talk about blank verse as an empowering theatrical force that helps the actor to realize their part but it arguably often has the opposite effect. For Harington, it seemed like a prison. This is partly because Faustus is much freer when he is flying round the world as a magical illusionist than when bargaining with Lucifer and Mephistopheles, but it is also the result of a struggle with Marlowe’s verse. It’s clear that the production was keen to play around with Marlowe’s text in many ways but I wonder if the verse speaking was treated with too much reverence. The additional scenes made numerous playful topical references including jokes at the expense of David Cameron and Donald Trump and it took a delight in the tacky, the tawdry, and the hollow. Topical jokes got big laughs but they were essentially crowd pleasers. Given the celebrity framework of the production this seemed to me a self-aware comment on the shallow appeal of popularity. The jokes serve their purpose because they get laughs but the laughs quickly dissipate and leave nothing behind; this was not an attempt at complex political satire but rather an exploration of the essential nullity at the core of Faustus.
This, in turn, prepared the audience for the darkly effective ending. The play poses a great challenge: how to represent Hell. In Lloyd’s production, Hell was the realization of absence. Right at the end of the play Faustus commits an atrocious act (I won’t say what) but his focus is immediately on his own imminent damnation rather than the effect of his actions on others. Yet he also realizes what he has done and what he has lost and the production ends, not with him being dragged into Hell, but with him spinning in a circle – is this a visual quotation of the ending of Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice? – cradling an imaginary body.