But Brixton-born director Paulette Randall has done some sorcery of her own, turning this dusty Elizabethan tale into a bubbling pantomime for the Sam Wanamaker Winter season, two hours swishing by in a cavalcade of candlelit magic. Jocelyn Jee Esien (Absolutely Fabulous, The Fast Show) injects strong sass into the title role, resulting in a joyful and unpretentious Faustus. Her passion for learning turns well-thumbed books into old friends, arguing at ones who dare contradict her ideas and infectiously giggling at others with favourite Latin in-jokes.
Her partner in crime is Pauline McLynn (once the tea-obsessed Mrs Doyle of Father Ted) as the wily Mephistopheles, servant of Lucifer and chief mischief-maker. The two are an evenly matched double act, each being the other’s comedic foil. In their hands dry scholarly debate becomes entertaining one-upmanship, the cold smugness oozing from Mephistopheles giving McLynn many an opportunity for the dry put-down, Faustus responding by petulantly mimicking McLynn’s Irish lilt. They even reach a semblance of friendship (as far as a pact with the devil can ever allow), working together to prank the Pope by invisibly moving his food around and slapping him in the face, before collapsing into fits of laughter. In the hands of Esien and McLynn, the roles of ominous demon and pompous academic are softened into class clowns.
Randall completely overturns the ordered fabric of the play in her portrayal of the seven deadly sins sent to tempt Faustus. Within the restrained Jacobean setting of the Sam Wanamaker they seem completely outlandish, prancing across the stage in a riot of colourful African costumes, their bodies writhing to a beat inspired by Brazilian slave music. Temptation has never looked so good, or so alien.
This production proves Faustus is full of laughs. Scenes cut in other productions are here included, allowing Randall to send in the clowns. Illiterate stable-hands, slurring their speech and barely capable of holding a book the right way up, triumphantly summon a miffed Mephistopheles to safeguard a small cup they’ve incompetently nicked from a local tavern. An elaborate procession of monks solemnly chant ‘cursed be he that struck his holiness upon the face’ with slow dignity, in a nod to the head-smashing monks of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Comedy it may be, but casting women in the roles of a male demon and a male magician reveals a tragic truth. In 16th century Europe, men could openly claim they had magical powers and were fêted at royal courts for their abilities, as Faustus is for his conjuring tricks in front of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was a different story for women – more witches were burned at this time in Germany than at any other time in European history. In this production women use magic as a source of power, earning respect and awe rather than the fear and hate they faced in reality. It’s satisfying not to hear the word ‘witch’ once.
Playing Faustus for laughs adds, but it also detracts. Faustus is written as being torn two ways, intensely conflicted between the desire for fame and the desire for heavenly salvation, which continually haunts the character throughout the play. However Esien signs away her life with a naïve clownish shrug, showing little of Faustus’s inner struggle throughout the performance, seemingly oblivious to the inevitable consequences as she dances mischievously from one adventure to another. So when Faustus is dragged down to Hell, her final monologue of despair and regret lacks the bitter sting of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, her tears of anguish falling on an unsympathetic audience. If she didn’t take her fate seriously, why should we?
|Doctor Faustus, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review
|Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London, SE1 9DT | MAP
|Mansion House (underground)
01 Dec 18 – 02 Feb 19, See theatre website for times
|£10 - £62
|Click here for more information