Plays involving famous figures, both historical and literary, seem to be as popular amongst writers as they are with audiences. There’s something hugely appealing about seeing Dali bantering with Freud, Pope Joan getting drunk at a dinner party or Benjamin Britten asking advice of W. H. Auden. David Davalos’ play turns his attention on Doctor Faustus, Martin Luther and Hamlet.
Set in 1517, in the University of Wittenberg, the play sees the studious Prince of Denmark caught between by the angelic professor of theology, Martin Luther, and the devilish Faustus. Luther and Faustus wrangle over issues philosophical and who best deserves Hamlet’s loyalty whilst the callow youth frets about the nature of the universe – as well as the relative merits of his tennis game.
The play blends bawdy comedy with intellectual grappling. But it’s too rich a mix for my blood. It struts about puffed-up and peacock-like, flaunting its many insider jokes and clever references. Hamlet is seen transfixed by the grin of a skull and is constantly battling the question of ‘To be or not to be’ in various different guises: “To believe or not to believe,” Faustus says mischievously; “That is the question” Hamlet mournfully replies. Nearly every other line contains a knowing nod or a literary allusion and Luther’s inevitable heresy is signalled loud and clear.
This becomes tiring. Davalos has plucked his characters from their original contexts and put them into a fictional scenario. But instead of developing this in a genuinely imaginative manner, he opts all too often for the easy laugh, the knowing wink. The play explores little that is new and there is a strong sense of the audience being permitted to pat themselves on the back as they get each reference.
Ostensibly a battle between faith and reason, the play overdoses on jokes. Against the backdrop of Oliver Townsend’s ingenious unfolding set, the audience are presented with little true philosophising or questioning. But it would be disingenuous not to admit that the writing is also very funny, good natured and entertaining. There’s a slight whiff of sitcom generalisation to Christopher Haydon’s jaunty production, a dose of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but this is actually quite likeable.
Sean Campion is a little too pleased with himself as Faustus. He is a charming dilettante, but his showmanship surpasses that of his character and there are times when one glimpses the performer underneath as he waits for the next laugh. Andrew Frame’s portly Luther plods through the piece like a trusty badger; though he is more solid than Campion’s silver fox, his bite can be as vicious and at points Frame’s performance surpasses buffoonery and delivers moments of genuine transcendence. Edward Franklin’s Hamlet is suitably youthful and green around the gills, wide eyes peeping out from under his golden ringlets, but the anxiety in those eyes never feels completely true and he tends to play up the melodrama in Hamlet’s existential crisis. Sophie Brittain, cast in the somewhat thankless role of the ‘Eternal Feminine’, seems – perhaps fittingly – awkward throughout what is an ultimately enjoyable and witty but also frustrating production.