Monday 5 September 2011

Faustus’ descendants

Wittenberg, Gate Theatre, London

Hamlet, Dr Faustus and Martin Luther walk into a student union bar. That’s pretty much the premise of David Davalos’ scholarly dazzler that pits opposing philosophies against one another. The load is lightened by a bawdy humour, but it’s also cheapened by smartass tendencies.

Davalos makes Wittenberg the theatrical equivalent of Jamie’s Dream School, at which the undergraduate Hamlet finds himself torn between Martin Luther’s Theology course and John Faustus’ lectures in Philosophy. With two conflicting worldviews swirling around his head, Hamlet gets caught in a spider’s web of lofty ideas, though it often seems a case of ‘you say co-gi-to, I say cogito.’

As such, it’s a pushmi-pullyu of a play. Two sides – Faustus’ scepticism and Luther’s faith – tug in different directions with equal and opposite force. The result is equilibrium and, with it, stagnancy. They never tear the central seam and birth something that might drive the action forward, because Davalos is more concerned with showboating than purpose.

Though his ambitions are Stoppardian, the flair remains largely surface, reliant on linguistic, rather than logical, gymnastics. Too often his chopping of three plays into lines satisfies through crass recognition rather than real achievement. It becomes something of a smugfest – on our self-congratulatory parts as much as the writer’s. As it continues, knowing winks are increasingly accompanied by elbow nudges and heel clicks.

Nonetheless, Wittenberg is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Faustus and Luther make a cracking odd couple; the one a swaggering silver fox, the other a constipated bore. Sean Campion and Andrew Frame spar with just the right combination of affection and animosity. Of course, the dice are loaded in favour of Faustus’ humanism, and that in itself entails pointed accusation. We are Faustus’ descendants: sceptical egoists all, faithful only to ourselves. The Apple logo, gilded gold all over Oliver Townsend’s impressive and intelligent set, roots consumer capitalism in original sin. Let’s not forget that the forbidden fruit came from the Tree of Knowledge.

Christopher Haydon’s production is full of such asides - almost too full, in fact, as an overload of symbols teeters on the edge of arbitrariness. Does it add anything to costume Edward Franklin’s Hamlet in the Villain T-shirt of the recent National production? Tonally, however, Haydon gets it spot on with his mix of theatrical conceit, calculated camp and jaunty pop post-modernism. It feels like an arch spoof of Shakespeare’s Globe. Most of all, for its many problems, Wittenberg is laudably ambitious, unfazed by its vast scale. With Haydon set to take over as artistic director of the Gate next year, that surely bodes well for this tiny space.

Till 1 October 2011

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