Movie review: Doctor Faustus

By Peter Calder

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If the third of three films of productions from Shakespeare's Globe does nothing else, it reminds us how much better the chap was who wrote the other two - All's Well That End's Well and Much Ado About Nothing.

Some of the more lunatic apostles of the "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" school suggest that this play's author, Christopher Marlowe, writing under an assumed name, was the chap responsible. Well, he must have been a man of consummate modesty not to claim credit for Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, which were knocked off around this time, and instead to hope posterity would celebrate him for Faustus.

It's not that it's a bad play, by any means, but to compare it to Shakespeare at his peak is like comparing the All Blacks with Auckland Grammar's First XV: they're playing the same game but they're not in the same league.

The story, German in origin, of the scholar who sold his soul to the devil in return for the removal of limits to his knowledge has bequeathed us some powerful archetypes (including the very concept of selling one's soul) but precious little poetry ("The face that launched a thousand ships", which I had always assumed was from Pope's translation of The Iliad is one).

Perhaps because it is staged at the Globe, which is as much a tourist attraction as a theatre, this production makes no attempt to sidestep the comic elements in the play. The result would have been a crowd-pleaser for those who were there, but as a drama about a man who stares and then leaps into the pits of hell, it never really seizes the imagination.

When Faust asks Mephistopheles what Old Nick wants with the scholar's soul, Marlowe has the messenger reply that "it gives comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery". It's the origin, presumably, of the axiom that "misery loves company" and it pulls a decent laugh at the Globe. It made me wonder: did Marlowe really expect anyone to shiver with mortal dread at that line?

Stars: 2.5/5
Director: Matthew Dunster
Cast: Arthur Darvill
Running time: 146 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Funnier than it ought to be.


- NZ Herald

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