The Theatreguide.London Review
Gate Theatre Autumn 2011
Take on a really big subject like, say, the conflict between faith and reason. Decide to present it through wit and comedy, take a really audacious leap of imagination to create a dramatic vehicle, and then pull it off successfully.
David Davalos' Wittenberg is a thoroughly entertaining flight of fancy that may make you think, in different ways, of Tony Kushner and Tom Stoppard.
Davalos imagines that the three most famous attendees of the notorious German university were contemporaries who met and disputed together.
Put aside for a moment the fact that as many as two of them may be fictional, and picture John Faustus as a professor of philosophy who moonlights as a lounge singer, Martin Luther as a professor of theology and practicing priest, and Prince Hamlet of Denmark as an undergraduate who characteristically can't decide what subject to study.
Davalos makes Luther and Faustus close friends despite their philosophical differences, setting the scene for clever and witty debates on faith and doubt. The academic setting also allows them each to lecture entertainingly on their subjects, and to take turns offering tutorials to their star pupil.
Meanwhile, Faustus's challenge to his friend to put some of his arguments in writing leads inadvertently to the invention of Protestantism, while the Doctor's dissatisfaction with some of his own thinking (along with the fact that the woman he loves – Helen, of course – doesn't want to be just another faculty wife) leads him to consider darker and potentially more profitable studies. And Hamlet worries about his tennis game.
A lot of history, philosophy and theology is communicated with remarkable grace and clarity, including wittily inserted passing allusions to such deep thinkers as Copernicus, Nietzsche, Einstein, Freud and Marlon Brando.
In one of the weaker but still effective gags Hamlet speaks a cod Shakespeare throughout, full of thous and wouldsts, while the others speak a colloquial modern English, and the text is full of echoes and paraphrases of both Shakespeare and Marlowe, along with throwaway jokes like 'If you drink, don't shrive.'
And in the midst of all this, the characters are all human and sympathetic. Sean Campion's Faustus is personable and charming, fast talking and faster thinking, but capable of real affection for his religious friend.
Andrew Frame allows Luther to be a bit ridiculous at times (as the man evidently was), but convinces us of a profound faith supported by a strong intellect.
And while the Hamlet of this play is more a dramatic device for allowing the others to talk than a developed character, Edward Franklin makes him an amiably silly adolescent.
Sophie Brittain plays a string of female characters, and Christopher Haydon directs with a delicate touch but solid control over the play's thoroughly satisfying blend of deep thought and light comedy.
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Review - Wittenberg - Gate Theatre 2011