‘Game of Thrones’ heartthrob Kit Harington provides a big name draw for this outlandish new take on Christopher Marlowe’s classic play about a man who flogs his soul to the devil in exchange for awesome powers. Which is a jolly good job, as without Harington’s bug-eyed, blood covered, frequently topless presence, I suspect Jamie Lloyd’s often baffling production might struggle in the risk-averse West End.
Stacked as he undoubtedly is, there’s precious little vanity as the former (and maybe future) ‘GOT’ star Harington takes on his first stage part in six years. In Marlowe’s 1592 play, the eponymous Faustus is a scholar who enters a pact with Lucifer via his agent Mephistopheles in exchange for 24 years of superhuman power. In Lloyd’s update, Harington plays him more like a sweaty, socially dysfunctional nerd, who stumbles across demonic rituals on the internet and decides to enact them after a brief struggle with his conscience.
I say ‘Marlowe’s play’: the big point of contention here is going to be that huge chunks of the original ‘Faustus’ have been hacked out and replaced by irreverent modern English passages by Colin Teevan that take up well over half of the night’s running time. In the bookending Marlowe bits, Harington’s clammy, bookish Faustus – sequestered in his grotty bedsit – is plagued by angels and demons that seem to exist more in the antihero’s head than reality.
Meanwhile, Teevan’s vast middle section, though loosely a rewrite of the weakest segment of the original, feels like a different play entirely. It’s a hallucinogenic, scatalogical, madly improbable fantasy in which Faustus has become a superstar magician who hangs out with Obama and the Pope, who can perform godlike tricks, and whose every witticism is punctuated by laughter and canned applause.
The effect is, er, pretty out there. My vague theory is that this Faustus is a loner who never really leaves his flat, and is in the grip of a psychotic episode in the Teevan portions. But those portions are now most of the play – the effect is more like a gleeful graffiti-ing of Marlowe or a play 'after Marlowe' than an update.
At times it feels wilfully incoherent – though much about it is compelling. Harington is definitely a lot more than a chiselled chest – though if that’s what you’re here for, don’t worry, you see plenty of it. Physically agile and endlessly self-mocking – we never forget his Faustus is a bit of a loser, as his face constantly twists in disappointent and annoyance – he’s actually quite frightening as a man feverishly skirting the very boundaries of sanity and belief.
But the show is really stolen by alt musical star Jenna Russell as a sullen, sarcastic and terrifying Mephistopheles, with whom Faustus has a peculiarly intense, sexually charged relationship. Again, I could offer a theory as to what aspect of Faustus’s subconscious she’s supposed to represent. Or I could just note that she’s great, she gets to sing Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’, and that she’s integral to the peculiar je ne sais quoi of a production that rewires an Elizabethan morality play into a wild twenty-first-century fever dream.