REVIEW: Doctor Faustus ★★★★ – Duke of York’s Theatre

“…violent, bloody, moving and disturbing – a must-see.”


West End Theatre Guide London

Artistic Director Jamie Lloyd’s interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s 400 year old play is stunning, hard-hitting and innovative, and its troubling and all too familiar messages and images will continue to resonate long after seeing the production.

Marlow took his inspiration from the German legend of Faust, the story of a successful yet unhappy and discontented scholar who makes a deal with the Devil, selling his soul in return for knowledge and pleasure. The legend has inspired many other writers, including Goethe, whose Faust is more closely connected to the legend, with the main difference between the two being that Doctor Faustus actually suggests the wager. The Faustian pact is present in popular culture, in novels, films and television series, and, famously, the 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson, who was found dead aged 27, is alleged to have made a deal at a crossroads for his talent, and indeed there are references to this in his songs. The story takes many forms, both in fiction and in real life, but the question is always: how much would you give up to get what you want?

Marlowe’s play tells the story of Doctor John Faustus who makes a pact with the Devil, selling his soul in return for the power of black magic to make him into a world-renowned conjurer and friend to the rich and famous. Faustus rides high, enjoying his fame, wealth and adoration, and abusing his power by playing cruel practical jokes. He appears uncaring where his power comes from but he becomes all too aware when the pact matures and the Devil collects. Throughout the play, Faustus declines all of Heaven’s offers of redemption, however, by the end, he begs for this opportunity but it never comes. Faustus has human moments when he is around Wagner, who he is attracted to and seems to really care for, and it is only when he is with her that he turns away from the Devil and wishes to undo what he has agreed. However, chillingly, he turns even that to evil when he murders and rapes her and so completes his descent into hell.

Mephistopheles is Faustus’ ever-present “guiding light”, a demon who both encourages him to “sin big”, insisting this is the way to rise above the eternal mediocrity of the human race, but equally tries to warn him against his proposed pact with Lucifer, telling him that hell is indeed real and terrible, a fact which Faustus soon comes to realise, but all too late.

This production features Game of Thrones star Kit Harington in the title part. He gives a fantastic performance as the troubled and damned Doctor. Jenna Russell (Merrily We a Ride Along, Grey Gardens, Guys and Dolls) is outstanding as the wonderfully twisted and demented Mephistopheles. It is a gritty, unconventional version of the play, at times funny, then sad, and then terrifying, with many current political references, and we see a chilling echo in our own times, in our celebrity-obsessed, greed-ridden society, desiring fame and fortune and demanding instant gratification, but at what price? As Mephistopheles tells us: ”Where we are is hell, and where hell is must we ever be.”

Marlowe’s work is vividly brought to life under Jamie Lloyd’s skilful direction. It is violent, bloody, moving and disturbing – a must-see.

Doctor Faustus is showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25th June. To read more about your visit to the Duke of York’s, read our guide.