There’s no denying the hard work that has gone into the new Young Vic production of “Doctor Faustus,” but one wonders by play’s end whether even the most star-struck of spectators will feel charitable enough to care. One of the season’s most anticipated productions, the first reteaming in 2½ years between actor Jude Law and director David Lan turns out to be among the most punishing, a metaphysical inquiry into devilish pacts that feels pretentious and emotionally inert. The limited run doubtless will sell out, but it’s hard to imagine much of a future life for a reclamation from the repertoire that pays lip service to “the utmost magic” and yet leaves you feeling impatient and utterly unmoved.
Collectors of dramatic curiosities no doubt will flock to a play better known about than actually experienced first-hand, even if previous local Faustuses (Fausti?) have included Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley, both in their pre-Sir days. In the last 15 years or so, Goethe’s and Gounod’s versions of the same legend have made more of an impact than Marlowe’s play, and director Lan here reveals the Elizabethan morality play (published in two distinct versions) as — in this airing, anyway — an affective also-ran to both.
While the smoky-voiced (and bearded) Law deserves credit for further plumbing an audacious canon that includes his first-rate Giovanni in 1999 at this address in ” ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” the play and production prove in different ways unyielding. Faustus’ “restless course” ought to shake an observer to the core, but one is mostly left ticking off the trials that await our antihero before we are given leave to bolt.
The cruel heart of the play remains, of course, the faceoff between Law’s Latin-spouting black-clad Faustus and Lucifer’s servant, Mephistophilis (Richard McCabe). You can tell this character represents some sort of envenomed nemesis since he speaks at about one-third this Faustus’ speed. While Law darts about the narrow ramp that dominates Richard Hudson’s unhelpful set, hurling props to either side (this show must keep the stagehands busy), McCabe strolls sardonically this way and that, offering faintly camp apercus — “misery loves company” probably the best-known of the lot.
Marlowe’s play travels a trajectory of despair, leading to as self-chastising and teary a denouement (“despair and die” is its mantra) as the Shakespearean era knows. And yet, the hurtling toward damnation turns out to be infinitely preferable to its facetious alternative, which finds most of the rest of the cast donning masks and participating in various mime shows en route to conjuring up the likes of the Seven Deadly Sins. (The set has seven chairs — one, presumably, for each sin.)
The physical theater component of the night marks the staging’s labored nadir, though one is never unaware of the sheer effort involved to tell this particular tale. (By contrast, the Law-Lan “‘Tis Pity” was swift and fleet of foot, and far more engagingly cast.) Good ideas emerge (Helen of Troy, for instance, is visible only as a shaft of light and, separately, as the vainglorious Faustus’ reflection) and then dive down again, supplanted more often than not by an uneasy mixture of low comedy — one aud-participation gambit by performer Tom Smith is especially painful — and highly wrought rant: Close your eyes and Law’s Faustus is virtually indistinguishable from Rufus Sewell’s National Theater Luther from last autumn, a second perf to find a charismatic actor flailing away bravely center-stage.
Some undoubtedly will warm to the Shakespearean echoes (“these are but shadows”), while admirers of “Little Voice” alumna Annette Badland — myself included — can cite at least one moment late on where a fine actress is allowed a chance to flower. Elsewhere, for all the high-flown talk of “melting heavens,” this “Faustus” is a decidedly muted event that leaves one puzzling out the story of a struggle for a soul that itself seems oddly soulless.