Arts

Theatre: Pop-star Faustus hits all the wrong notes

Kit Harrington as Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s classic enactment of sin and damnation, seen through the cynical eyes of an atheist, was written in an era when audiences would have taken hell very seriously.

Many years ago I saw a production in which hell caught fire and had to be put out by a fire extinguisher, which, while pretty encouraging for all the miserable sinners in the audience, tended to undermine the grand finale somewhat.

Jamie Lloyd at the Duke of York’s Theatre has opted for a modern adaptation by Colin Teevan which gets rid of the banal central section, which most people don’t think Marlowe wrote anyway. But what Teevan puts in its place is not an improvement. Faustus now sells his soul to the Devil to become a celebrity – a pop star.

Kit Harrington, famous because of Game of Thrones, is good for box office. But his boyishly trim Faustus does not age over a 24-year period. He never becomes a tragic figure and his final scene lacks power. Mephistopheles is played by a woman, which doesn’t help. The production is chaotic and crude. The supporting cast of fallen angels perform in grubby underwear, a singularly unpleasant sight.

Funny Girl, the 1963 Broadway musical with music by Julie Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, tells the story of Fanny Brice, a Yiddish burlesque comedienne and singer, who starred in 14 consecutive Ziegfeld Follies, the American equivalent of the French Folies Bergère. The shows relied on lavish spectacle, brilliant comedians and beautiful chorus girls. Fanny – ribald, gutsy and anarchic – had a remarkable talent for mimicry and belting out ballads.

The musical is forever identified with Barbra Streisand and she is a hard act to follow; so hard that Funny Girl has had no revivals until now. Michael Mayer’s production, originally seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory, has transferred to the Savoy Theatre. Sheridan Smith has the vulnerability the lead role requires and she can clown, sing and belt out a big number like Don’t Rain on My Parade on her own terms.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s impressive touring epic Kings of War, a conflation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, directed by Ivo van Hove and acted in Dutch with English surtitles, is performed in modern dress at the Barbican. The action remains in the same spacious bunker war room. Many scenes, and all the murders, take place in a clinically white corridor off stage and these are shown on film and video. Texts and characters are ruthlessly slashed. The production, which lasts a taxing but rewarding four-and-a-half hours (including an interval), is a major theatrical event.

The Comedy about a Bank Robbery, at Criterion Theatre, written and performed by the team that staged The Play That Goes Wrong, is often very funny; but it’s still very much in the workshop stage and needs some ruthless editing.

Jean Genet, delinquent, thief, poet, spent much of his life in reformatories and prison. So it isn’t surprising that the very first play he wrote, Deathwatch, now at The Coronet, should have a prison setting. Genet’s hallucinatory fantasies are fiendishly difficult to get right and the only director who ever did that in Britain was Lindsay Kemp.