As a boy, my first encounter with the Faust myth was in the form of Christopher Marlowe’s play; it has taken me until now to realise that, dramatically, it’s not actually much cop.
It contains some fine set pieces, most notably at the beginning and end of the play, when Faustus first summons Mephistopheles and strikes an infernal pact with him, and then 24 years later when, terrified, he tries to avoid settling up. But what does he do in the interim with his mighty powers? Plays silly-billies with the Pope, fetches grapes for a pregnant noblewoman, snogs Helen of Troy and diddles a peasant out of 40 dollars. Hardly worth anyone’s immortal soul. He often yields the stage so that this broad comedy can alternate with the even broader comedy of a subplot involving his servant Robin who, having stolen one of Faustus’s magic books, sets his sights lower still.
Director Matthew Dunster marshals a good Globe-style production, using a text trimmed not least of Marlowe’s ostentatious Latinisms. Steve Tiplady of the Little Angel Theatre has advised on a raft of puppetry effects, from tiny figures of the damned (and a demon that appears out of Robin’s backside) to huge winged dragons. Good and bad angels do not just whisper in Faustus’s ears but fight each other like samurai, and a phalanx of black-clad and goggled demons act as supernumeraries. However, as seems more or less inherent with the Globe, comedy and spectacle go down well but tragedy less so.
Matters are not helped by the central casting. Paul Hilton simply is not a magnetic Faustus; he never commands our attention or sympathies either as self-indulgent trickster or tragic hero. Arthur Darvill’s Mephistopheles is similarly unshowy. When he proclaims, “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it”, there is so little in his delivery of hellish pain that one can see how Faustus could disbelieve in that nether realm even as one of its chief denizens stands before him.
In contrast, the low comedy works much better precisely because Pearce Quigley is such a deadpan Robin. He cuts the occasional lugubrious caper, but most of his clowning is of the Keatonesque, stone-faced variety. Overall, of the sense of a man squandering his soul on fripperies there is precious little.