The Theatreguide.London Review
This revival of Christopher Marlowe's classic is a vehicle for film star Jude Law, and there are enough of his young fans about to guarantee a sell-out for its limited run. So nothing I say will have any effect on either its success or their pleasure. But, for the record, I had trouble staying awake, and much of the blame falls on Law's shoulders.
Marlowe's play about the mythical soul-to-devil-seller is built on the tragic irony of human limitation. Given boundless power in return for his soul, Faustus asks for only 24 years of fun, and spends it playing practical jokes and doing parlour tricks to entertain the nobility, only realizing in the horribly intense final hour of his life what a price he's paid.
Law fails almost completely to give any reality to this experience. He jumps about and writhes about when required, and does a lot of things that look like acting (which is why his fans are satisfied). But you don't believe a minute of it, and are certainly not moved by his adventure. He lacks gravity, any sense of the eternal-life-or-death stakes on which the tragedy plays itself out.
This is particularly evident in contrast to Richard McCabe's Mephistophilis. With extraordinary subtlety and efficiency, this sometimes over-the-top actor conveys more of a sense of his character in a single line reading, or in a sardonic smile followed by a flash of self-disgust, than Law manages in the whole play. McCabe's devil is a weary journeyman who has seen and done this all so many times before that doing the same predictable cheap magic tricks to collect souls has become drudgery, and he hates himself for doing it almost as much as he hates Faustus.
It's a new, fresh reading of the role, and it works beautifully, so that you eagerly look forward to his every scene, to see what new nuances he will find and communicate in his unshowy way - watch his face when he's ordered to supply a dish of grapes for a pregnant woman, for example.
But that performance is really the only thing you are likely to find pleasure in, unless you are one of the demographic who find merely being in the same space as Jude Law thrilling. David Lan's direction disappoints not only in the way he has failed to elicit anything from his star, but in a series of quirky, different-just-to-be-different decisions that subvert the play.
The staging is full of self-consciously clever moments, almost every one of which has some thematic or interpretive purpose, but almost every one of which falls flat. When Faustus raises the spirits of Alexander the Great and others, for example, you can see that Lan wanted to underline their tawdry falseness by having them move like cuckoo clock automatons, but the result is just irrelevant and mood-breaking cheap laughs.
The Seven Deadly Sins scene plays like an acting school improv session, there's a pie-in-the-face that's a big mistake, and Lan stages the play's two greatest scenes - the raising of Helen of Troy ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?") and Faustus's horrific final hour - in bizarre ways that show that he did have an idea in mind, but that simply don't work theatrically. They don't even make clear what's going on - I defy anyone who doesn't know the play to tell me what happens in the final seconds.
Go see the real live movie star if you must. But keep your eye on his co-star. The devil doesn't get all the good lines, but he's the only thing worth watching in this soporific production.
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Review - Doctor Faustus - Young Vic 2002