The text that codified the old legend of the learned man who sells his soul to the devil, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is one of the most influential plays in English history. It’s also one of the worst, from the point of view of the director.
Scenes of intense religious struggle are intercut with the crudest of groundling comedy skits, in the most incongruous of juxtapositions. It may be Marlowe’s way of emphasizing that, under his silks, Faustus is as ineffectual and decayed as the world he inhabits, but it doesn’t do much for narrative flow. And that’s before you get to the serious problems with the pacing of the play’s theological climax, or the 16th Century political lampoons of characters that flit in and out of the action before we’ve even had time to identify them.
But all this is why Matthew Dunster’s imaginative staging at Shakespeare’s Globe should be welcomed. For once, we have a Faustus that is coherent and watchable, even while festooned with the type of garish spectacle that made this uneven play a hit with Early Modern Londoners. You’re unlikely to see a production in which the raucous tavern scenes are so deftly brought into line with the main plot.
Much of this is due to the power of Steve Tiplady’s anarchic puppetry – there’s a cold thrill that unfurls over the pit as oafs and clowns find themselves under absurdist attack from their own bodies, only to be exposed as playthings for the same menacing painted devils that we see massing for the damnation of Faustus himself. Yet, despite the aesthetic clarity of Tiplady’s puppets, from the luxury seats of the middle circle even the largest set pieces couldn’t help but feel a little small.