Thursday, 21 July 2011

I see a little silhouetto of a Sin

Pride and Lust, Pride and Lust
But I cannot repent now

One of the things that really bothers me about the theatre is that, despite all efforts to open it up to wider audiences and to make plays more accessible, it still carries the baggage of privilege and pretension that were attached to it pretty much as soon as theatre moved indoors. Ironic really, when you think about the mix of people that would have attended theatres back in the Renaissance.

"Serious" theatre-goers, critics and reviewers continue to look rather snobbishly down their noses at the world of television, and as a result, actors who have achieved fame and prominence in that medium will tend to be regarded with suspicion. "We'll have none of that muck here, thank you. We want proper actors." Those who have suffered the most, as far as I can tell, from the taint of what is referred to as "stunt casting", are, for some reason, those actors who have played major roles in Doctor Who. And it's important that they're major ones, mind - I've seen plenty of more minor Who characters perform in all sorts of RSC productions without comment.

Back in 2008, when David Tennant took on the roles of both Berowne in  Love's Labours Lost and, more famously, Hamlet, in plays shown at The Courtyard in Stratford, old-school theatre buffs complained loudly to anyone who was interested, and many more who weren't, about how ridiculous it was that "Doctor Who" had been allowed to play one of the Bard's greatest characters, how it was all about the theatres making money. More fool them, however, because in pretending to know/care more about "real" theatre than the rest of us plebs, they only exposed their own deep ignorance. Tennant, as people who genuinely do care about theatre will know, actually made his name on Shakespearean acting. Long before "Ten" was even a twinkle in Russell T. Davies's eye, David Tennant was very much what exclusive, √©litist idiots would deem a "proper" actor.

Of course, I wouldn't wish to dispute the assertion that the reputation and fanbase Tennant garnered from Who brought a lot of people out to the theatre who wouldn't otherwise have had the slightest interest in Shakespeare - a fact manifest by the fact that that awful, awful chip shop on the corner nearest the theatres kept a big Dalek stuck up in the window for most of the season. Unlike some, however, I don't actually see this as a bad thing (attracting bigger audiences, I mean - poor quality chippies cashing in on tourists is always a bad thing). In fact, bloody well done, I'd say, and I hope the RSC gained a few more regular punters from the "stunt". Had either production actually been a bad one, some of the sceptics' whining might almost have been justified. As it was, while Hamlet had a few flaws, they were a truly fine couple of shows, and L.L.L. was near-perfect. In my opinion, Tennant more than proved he could hack it - which is not to say that he hadn't already done so several years previously.

Having taken on the role of Mephistopheles in Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus at the Globe, Arthur Darvill has suffered a similar critical bashing. Now I must confess here, that before I'd seen the play myself, I did find it quite difficult to imagine lovely Rory as a demonic prince of darkness, rushing to steal away scholarly souls (though he might well have won a few students' hearts already). Nevertheless, I had no reservations whatsoever, no prejudices, and determined to go and see the production before I came to any conclusions about it. In fact, more than anything, I was excited. If he's brilliant as Rory, why not as someone else? That is kind of what acting's all about, after all, and I think it's high-time audiences and reviewers put a bit more faith in established actors to do their jobs properly. If they've been successful, the assumption should surely be that there's probably a good reason for it. Unfortunately, while genuinely good actors get slammed for crossing media boundaries, often far less interesting performers will be lauded because they suit certain people's ideas of what theatre should be. Surprise, surprise, Darvill, in my opinion, was probably the best thing about the Globe's Faustus, yet the reviews I've read so far have been almost unanimously scathing, describing him as "woefully miscast", etc...

Overall, I'd have to say that Dr Faustus wasn't nearly as impressive a production as any of the aforementioned (including the version of Romeo & Juliet with Gale, which was carried very well by an excellent Sam Troughton as Romeo - spot the Who connection there). Having said that, the friends that I saw the show with all seemed to love it, so perhaps part of the problem is just that I've been spoilt with high-quality RSC productions (by far the best of the best) since childhood. There were, to be fair, plenty of things about it that I liked. Wagner was generally entertaining (though perhaps not quite as clever and witty as I remembered from reading the play), and Faustus looked convincingly scholarly, even if he didn't quite come across as a genius. Spectacle was a strong point, with most of the demons being impressive to look at, though unfortunately this didn't extend to the Prince of Hell himself, whose get up, complete with silly beard, wasn't remotely scary, but rather ridiculous, as was also noted by this Guardian reviewer. The pageant of Sins looked terrific, though the fart jokes went on a little too long, and the dragons on which Faustus and Mephistopheles fly to Rome were simply stunning. And, though it was fairly irrelevant to the story, I did thoroughly enjoy the post-epilogue devils' sing-and-dance along. It was good fun, at least.

I couldn't, however, in all honesty, say that the production was well-directed - which is where the RSC almost always wins out. At times, it was struggling to stay interesting, and I do think that the main reason for this was the initial decision taken to work from the far-inferior B version of the text. It is possible that I'm slightly biased, having studied the A-text at A-level, but then, I did read both at the time, and re-read them more recently as part of my degree course, and I'm absolutely convinced that however you do it, there's no way that poor censored B can live up to the religious, philosophical and ethical challenges, the subtleties and ambiguities, or even the poetry of A. Choosing B first of all means missing out on some of the best lines and imagery, outside of Shakespeare, in the history of British theatre:
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ -
Ah, rend not my heart for the naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him - O spare me, Lucifer! (Sc13: 72-5)
And later:
O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain (Sc13: 91-3)
It's difficult to imagine anyone in more turmoil, begging for mercy alternately from his supposed Saviour, who fails to be there for him, and from his persecutor, who also fails to answer him. Whether you choose to read it as the demented railings of a madman, or a genuine metaphysical crisis, this is pretty powerful stuff. The only reason, as far as I can see, for cutting it, is the word "Christ" not making it past the Renaissance censors. Similarly disappointing alterations and additions occur throughout. The important thing to take away from A is that Faustus is not a bad man. He never hurts anyone - his only real sin is the initial act of "conjuring" and "abjur[ing] the scriptures" - and he is condemned, following Christian logic, to eternal torture merely for the sake of a few silly games and party tricks. We are, as an audience, meant to like him, meant to root for him, right down to his topical digs at Catholics and Spaniards, and not least because of his heavily autobiographical  elements, at least in the Prologue:
Now is he born, his parents base of stock,
Of riper years to Wittenberg he went
So soon he profits in divinity,
The fruitfull plot of scholarism graced,
That shortly he was graced with doctor's name (Prologue: 11-7)
My emphasis is on the ironic use of "graced" here, grace being a gift from God, and the subtle implication thus that God's "gifts" can lead us to damnation. Like Faustus, Marlowe was born to poor, working class parents, but raised himself to a higher station through his studies, attending one of the most famous universities of his time (and ours). It takes guts to cast yourself as a damned man - or at least, it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - but Marlowe was, pretty much, the archetypal "rebel":
Not marching now in fields of Thrasimene,
Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love,
In courts of kings where state is overturned,
Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds,
Intends our muse to vaunt his heavenly verse (Prologue: 1-6)
In other words, "You know all those things you think plays are meant to be? Well, this isn't any of them." Dr Faustus is, at its best, essentially Marlowe's long-winded way of sticking up two fingers at both strict religious dogma and established theatrical conventions - which were, interestingly, interrelated. Faustus himself was arguably the first complex character to appear on stage in Britain. Prior to that, there were clowns, and there were the sorts of two-dimensional allegorical figures found in Medieval morality plays. It is then, absolutely essential to Marlowe's purpose that we sympathise with Faustus.

In the B-text, however, Faustus is shown to torture, and finally kill, Benvolio (who incidentally remains unnamed in A), the man to whom he had earlier given horns for mocking him, along with two of his friends from the Emperor's court. Towards the end of the play, too, hoardes of angry people seek out Faustus at the court of the Duke and Duchess, in order to get revenge for his wrongs to them, whilst in A, he seems to be almost universally liked and favoured. Finally, B adds an extra scene at the end, in which the scholars find Faustus' limbs all torn asunder, just to make it quite clear that Faustus has definitely died in extreme pain and been carried off to a horrible, endless afterlife. It also adds extended moralising speeches from both the Devil and the Angel, occurring before Faustus' own monologue. A, on the other hand, is open-ended enough for readers and audiences to interpret things their own way. Faustus may or may not be dead, he may or may not be in Hell, and all the devils and spirits he speaks to may or may not be figments of his imagination. This is most apparent when Faustus cries out to his fellow scholars,
Look, comes he not, comes he not?
To which they reply:
What means Faustus?
Belike he is grown into some sickness, by being over-solitary. (Sc13: 4-8)
One of Matthew Dunster's worse decisions in the Globe production was to ruin this ambiguity by having Lucifer and his devils enter at this point, so that the audience can see them as clearly as can Faustus. Further, and which is not in either version of the text, Mephistopheles is privy to Faustus' whole monologue, interrupting him sometimes and moving around on stage, distracting us and ruining the sense of urgency, desperation and, above all, isolation. That pissed me off.

Other than making a few unnecessary, unwanted appearances, however, as I said above, Arthur Darvill was great. I loved his short-temperedness, his sarcastic attitude, and even the sense of anger and real distress he conveyed whenever Faustus questioned him on God. Best of all, he seemed to really get the point of how hopelessly and sadly ridiculous the whole thing was.

My least favourite parts of the production were the more puerile of the comedy scenes, some of which do exist in both texts, though there are a lot more in B. In fact you might reasonably argue that B is the dumbed-down version, edited in much the same patronising way as British stories and shows are for American TV and in Hollywood. Some of the "clown" scenes aren't bad, usually when they're working as parodies of the main narrative, but some of them are. Faustus is kind of funny, in an intelligent, deeply ironic way that demands a lot of thinking from its audience, so I'd argue that it shouldn't need lots of rubbish jokes to hold people's attention. What it definitely didn't need was for Dunster to stick in his own rubbish jokes as well, like the orgy that Faustus apparently participates in with the Duke and pregnant Duchess, and his lifting the lady's skirts to retrieve the grapes she craves, brought from a "distant count-ry". I bet he thought he was clever. Trouble is, the only people who'd have got it would have known that it was stolen from elsewhere...

There was a bit too much of all that for my liking, and not enough attention paid to the significance, to the power of the actual story, or to the brilliance of the lines themselves. I know that the Globe is a touristy place, and as such attracts non-artsy, non-literary, and even non-intelligent people, but I still couldn't help but find the whole thing just a tad patronising, and, at times, just boring. I enjoyed the more spectacular elements, but it felt to me as though they were the only elements that the production team thought their audience capable of enjoying. All the cleverest bits were either cut or so obscured and unemphatic that you could barely notice them. I don't think that they were trying to scare, shock or challenge us, despite the fact that, even now, the story of Dr Faustus is a pretty troubling one. What they were trying too hard to do was to amuse us, and quite often, it ended up feeling a bit like listening to a twelve-year-old boy who thinks he's funny. Perhaps, much like the reviewers ought to have more faith in actors, the directors need to give their audiences a bit more due credit.

Quotations taken from the New Mermaids edition of Christopher Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus', edited by Roma Gill (London: A&C Black, 2002).

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