Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (Directed by Paulette Randal, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)
I’d managed to forget that Pauline McLynn was in this as Mephistopheles — which is just as well as I would have been channelling Mrs Doyle. “Ah will you not sell your soul, Father Dougal? Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on… Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” It does make sense in retrospect — she brings a grotesquery to the role, as well as a cat who has got the cream (with or without tea), as she knows what is to come. There is also a moment when she licks the knife Faustus has used to get blood to sign with — and I’m reminded of Gary Oldman’s Dracula licking Keannu Reeves’s Harker’s cut-throat razor. There is even a physical resemblance.
If Mephistopheles is unexpectedly, er, female, then so is Doctor Faustus, Jocelyn Jee Eslen, in a gender and race blind cast. Naturally this involves some minor rewriting of the text — I’m not clear what combination of the 1604 and 1616 quartos they’bve used — but they avoid the sense of a woman scholar being necessarily a problem or misogyny. She brings a strong, sexualised, charismatic presence to the part. But problem he/she is — the oddness underlying the play is that having sold their soul to the devil for twenty-four years of power they merely inquire about cosmology, cough up gold and kick the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor up the arse. And con someone over a horse.
There hardly needs to be a comic subplot, as the working class Robin and Dick get bladdered using stolen magic books seems hardly more funny than practical jokes in Rome. This is a tragedy played for laughs, and it only the extraordinary physical dexterity of Eslen (and other members of the cast) that turns it darker when it comes time to collect Faustus’s soul.
It is perhaps typical of Christopher Marlowe’s imagination — Macbeth is evidently a darker play, written at the start of the reign of demonologist James I. Marlowe doesn’t quite take it seriously; his business is closer to the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The treatment of the Pope (Jay Villiers, who doubles as the Holy Roman Emperor and Lucifer) suggests a (probably wise) mickey taking of Catholicism, although the biography suggests he had thought of going to the English Catholic college in Rheims; on the other hand I’m not quite sure I buy it endorsing Calvinism (there surely has to be some hope Faustus will repent, although s/he seems queerly unable to).
I confess I find Marlowe more interesting than Shakespeare, if only because of the edifice built around the Immortal Bard. And yet I’ve only seen Tamburlaine (an athletic Tony Sher in 1992) and Edward II (Eddie Izzard at the Haymarket, Leicester, in 1995, and Jarman’s extraordinary appropriation on film), plus a poor student production. And yet I appear to have three or more collected editions. I must look out for a A Jew of Malta, Dido and Aeneas or Massacre at Paris. And book for Edward II at the Sam Wanamaker