Doctor Faustus, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, review: devilishly bold and brilliant casting, but where are the spine-tingling shivers?

Jocelyn Jee Esien as Faustus in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production - Marc Brenner
Jocelyn Jee Esien as Faustus in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production - Marc Brenner

Is Doctor Faustus cursed? I’m not referring to the supernatural blights said to have afflicted early performances of Marlowe’s necromantic “tragicall history”, based on the eternally re-spun German legend about a divinity scholar who makes a ruinous pact with the devil. Contemporary accounts referred to an affrighting crack mid-performance, and even the apparition of the devil himself. No, it’s more that it’s often revived and frequently a let-down. 

Because it can look like one damned thing after another, between the first conjuration and the chill hour of soul-reclamation, the temptation to meddle with the muddled middle is acute. There have been moderate successes; a 2004 production in Northampton, splicing Marlovian excerpts with scenes showing Brit-artists the Chapman Brothers constructing their idea of hell, propelled director Rupert Goold to glory. But Jamie Lloyd’s 2016 West End staging – with Kit Harington’s Faust a fame-seeking illusionist – was the last word in diabolical.

Now, amid a flurry of infernal activity at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (also hosting Macbeth), comes a production starring Jocelyn Jee Esien, a woman so funny she got her own BBC comedy vehicle: Little Miss Jocelyn. This bold casting decision – striking a big blow for diversity – reaps some valuable rewards in terms of accentuating Faustus’s unbridled mischief-making. 

Making the part female along with that of Mephistopheles (played by another comedy “face”, Pauline McLynn, the housekeeper Mrs Doyle in Father Ted) and even referring to Jove as a “she” creates a jolting canonical sacrilege. At one level, you’re prompted to think about witchcraft and the demonisation of clever women. At another, there’s a modern #MeToo feel to Faust’s pomposity-pricking subterfuge against the pope in particular and the patriarchy in general.

In terms of atmosphere, Paulette Randall’s period-dressed revival has the in-built advantage of a candle-lit Jacobean interior. In the gallery – where Faustus’s good and evil angels (sporting large white and black feathers) first appear – a quartet spirit up spooking sounds, while a trap-door and back alcove also help foster the illusion of being inside a box of tricks.

Pauline McLynn as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus - Credit: Marc Brenner
Pauline McLynn as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus Credit: Marc Brenner

Yet I wish Esien had heeded the advice of that other haunted former student at Wittenberg, Hamlet, to speak her speeches “trippingly on the tongue”. Marlowe’s blank verse should gallop like a fiery steed. Here, it’s as if our anti-heroine keeps dismounting to admire the view. “How [pause] am I glutted with conceit of this” … “Know [beat] that your words have won me at the last”. It’s so laid-on, it quashes the pulse of outpoured thought.

That said, Esien has a commanding presence, a winning cackle. As with the non-western carnivalesque elements (the parade of seven deadly sins, for instance, borrows from Afro-Brazilian Candomble tradition) she brings a quirky, anti-colonial vibe to proceedings, especially in her mimickery of the self-possessed McLynn. 

Yet we need more malignity in her proclamations. By the dread-inducing climax, we should have been powerfully torn between boo-hissing and cheering her on – and felt a shiver up the spine at being so riven. Alack, I felt nary a tingle.

Until Feb 2. Tickets: 020 7401 9919;