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A CurtainUp London Review
Doctor Faustus

Why, this is hell nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven!
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of eternal bliss?
-- Mephistophilis

 Doctor Faustus
Jude Law as Doctor Faustus
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
The Natural Nylon Theatre Company, run by a group of British actors, most of whom are still in their twenties, has collaborated with the Young Vic to revive Christopher Marlowe's play, Doctor Faustus about a German medieval academic, who in the search for knowledge, sells his soul to the Devil. Now normally there is a small audience for sixteenth century plays unless they are by William Shakespeare, but this play has been sold out for weeks before it opened. Why? Because, taking the title role is local south east Londoner, Jude Law, now as well known in Hollywood, as in Blackheath where he went to school.

Christopher Marlowe, also a Londoner, was murdered in Deptford, in south east London in 1593 aged 28 when he was stabbed in the eye in a private house (often said to be a tavern) over the reckoning. Marlowe was in fact associated with Elizabeth I's master of spies Sir Francis Walsingham and there may be more to his murder than the inquest discovered. Marlowe left some works of great promise and we can only imagine what he might have written given a greater life span. For those who have not yet encountered Marlowe's blank verse, it is as beautiful as it is expressive, ten beats to a line giving it a lyrical rhythm. Some of the text is in Latin, Marlowe studied at Cambridge University. After the Latin lines, a spoken translation has been inserted in this production for non-classicists. The text used here is the 1604 version which is thought to be all written by Marlowe whereas the 1616 version has been analysed to contain material in the style of another writer, one Rowley.

What David Lan has attempted, in giving Marlowe's play a modern focus, is to portray Hell as individual despair, as the depths of depression. So at the end of the play when Faustus, having rejected redemption, is left to undergo his terrible fate, instead of all hell being let loose theatrically, there is a small moment when Mephistophilis (Richard McCabe) hands him a book. We, the audience, recognise that this is the book that bought Faustus' soul, the book of knowledge of the earth, the seas, the planets and the animals, plants and trees. Somehow the book which once meant so much to him, now seems too petty a reward, as Faustus contemplates his inner torture. His final decision is to reject redemption in order to have a "heavenly" kiss from Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium". Lan stages this as Faustus looks into a looking glass and kisses his own reflection. Is the message that Faustus' own ego has brought him to this point, that the prize is not worth having because it is illusory?

With a cast of seven playing a score of parts, there is no excess about this production. In fact Richard McCabe's cynical, onlooking, stately Mephistophilis is so understated that he seems bored from the moment when he is forced to come back, not as a red masked devil, but in the guise of a Franciscan friar. Sometimes he talks between bared teeth. I liked Jude Law's self-centred Faustus, but even bearded he seemed more fresh faced youth than the part allows. The scene when Faustus signs the contract in his own blood is one of the best. McCabe growls as he takes the contract from the bare armed, bleeding Faustus. When Faustus starts to waver, Jude Law shows some of his acting range as he portrays the torture of Faustus' soul, rolling over and over as he wearies of his life. The rest of the cast muck in to bring us the burlesque of the "Seven Deadly Sins", and the various dignitaries Faustus meets on his tours of Europe, including the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The very physical "Sins" trundle up and down like a mob of soccer supporters and the final sin of Pride is reserved for Faustus himself. The costume starts as Tudor but Mephistophilis alone is allowed a modern red tuxedo outfit.

Much of Marlowe's play is concerned with the black arts and necromancy, something which it is hard to take seriously in the modern age but it is well staged with projected stars and the eerie musical sounds of spirits abroad. Twin angels, one good in white, one evil in black like two sides of the same coin, are choreographed to plead with Faustus as he wrangles over his decision. There are comic moments as Faustus' servant Wagner (Bohdan Poraj) tries to emulate his master's invocation of the Devil. The set is a minimal raised traverse stage of bare wooden boards, below the earth of black rubber off cuts onto which Faustus throws his rejected books.

David Lan's interpretation is thought provoking even if the result is less spectacular than the fiery flames of Hell. Sold out, but twelve day seats to be sold from 15th April each day at 10am at the box office to callers in person only.

Doctor Faustus
Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by David Lan

Starring: Jude Law, Richard McCabe
With: Tom Smith, Bohdan Poraj, Ofo Uhiara, David Fielder, Annette Badlnad
Design: Richard Hudson
Lighting Design: Matthew Richardson
Choreography: Kate Flatt
Sound design: Crispian Covell
Music: Murray Gold
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 4th May 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th April 2002 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1
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