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Theatre Review Done deal with the devil

PETER MASON recommends a quirky gamble with tradition in Dr Faustus which pays off

Doctor Faustus
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

THE ATMOSPHERICALLY candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is just about the perfect setting for Doctor Faustus and director Paulette Randall has ensured that her interpretation of Christopher Marlowe's cautionary tale makes great use of the venue's claustrophobic attributes.

On a dark, wood-panelled and vaguely masonic set, with three minstrels scratching eerie sound effects in the balcony above, Faustus's deal with the devil unfurls in shadowy fashion as Marlowe's polymathic lead, played with great elan by Jocelyn Jee Esien, opts to put short-term gain ahead of long-term pain.

It's a story that's especially apposite in these times, as is Marlowe's suggestion that hell is as easily found on earth as anywhere down below.

But while Randall is keen to explore the play's murky depths, she and the excellent cast also make the most of what humour is available, mining Marlowe's script for as many laughs as they can muster, including through some playful interaction with the audience.

In doing so, they raise the main reservation about this production. As a consequence of its enthusiastic search for lighter moments, nothing ever appears to be quite evil or hellish enough — not even the devil himself, played by Jay Villiers. It would be gratifying to feel a chill in the spine every now and then but genuinely sinister moments are few and far between.

On the whole, though, that's a fair price to pay for the enjoyment that the players wring out of Marlowe’s scenes, with many of the humorous moments among the highlights.

In keeping with the mood, Esien plays Faustus as a woman who seems to be in league with Lucifer for the fun of it rather than any actual, serious devilment. She also nicely conveys the sense that hers is a surface enjoyment —  in the end, her magical exploits provide a rather hollow form of entertainment and are ultimately serving the needs of others, not herself.

As Faustus's cynical and sly foil, Mephistopheles (Pauline McLynn) verges on the lovable, gradually warming to her dastardly tasks as time passes. Among a strong ensemble, the homely and down-to-earth interventions of  Mandi Symonds as Wagner are a comforting presence amid the trickery.

Not the most haunting of treatments, then – despite the dimly lit environment – but a stimulating amalgam of light and shade, comedy and tragedy, that does Marlowe justice.

Runs until February 2, box office: shakespearesglobe.com.

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